Budget & Finance

Do Private Donations Reinforce School Disparities?

Donations vary widely in three neighboring Wisconsin districts
By Francisco Vara-Orta — April 18, 2017 9 min read
Technical education instructor John Juckem leads a class in the newly built machine shop at Sheboygan North High School in Sheboygan, Wis.
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When it comes to how much private money flows in to help their students, the Kohler, Sheboygan Area, and Sheboygan Falls school districts may seem a world apart. In reality, they’re neighbors.

Private donations can come through parent-teacher organizations, school district foundations, booster clubs, and private companies. Though they account for a fraction of districts’ budgets, the extra dollars can reinforce existing inequities between districts just one street over from one another, suggests a nationwide Education Week Research Center analysis of the latest federal financial data available.

Sheboygan Falls, Kohler, and Sheboygan Area sit side by side on the east side of Sheboygan County—about an hour north of Milwaukee near Lake Michigan. Within the county, the Kohler district garnered the most in private contributions in 2014: $863 per pupil. Sheboygan Falls, meanwhile, brought in $27 per pupil, and Sheboygan Area, $62 a student.

Since 2006, when the federal government began asking districts to report private contributions in an annual survey, Kohler’s inflation-adjusted, per-pupil dollar amount soared from $131 to $863.

The uptick isn’t by accident, said Kohler Superintendent Quynh Trueblood.

“We like to say we are proudly a public school system, but just with some private school touches,” Trueblood said during a tour of her campus. “Our community has high expectations of us, and we strive to meet that level of quality, so we have to seek out that extra support.”

Districts often loathe being pitted against one another and must counterbalance the realities of competing for money and students while working together on larger regional or state initiatives.

“There can be animosity in the community over the haves and the have-nots,” said Sheboygan Falls Superintendent Jean Born, who’s lived and worked in the area for nearly three decades. “But Kohler has their own set of challenges, too, and we’ve worked hard over the years to unite as we’re now facing greater concerns.”

Kohler is home to a five-star resort and golf course, and annual average household income is about $20,000 to $32,000 higher than that of its district neighbors. It relies much less on state aid than it does on local revenue because it is a property-wealthy district, and no students qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program.

Data Lacking on Private Funds

Trying to measure the influence of private contributions on schools is still a hazy task given a lack of data, and in turn, a lack of research.

Nationwide, Wisconsin was among the best at reporting how many private dollars each of its school districts received, according to an Education Week Research Center analysis of federal data adjusted for inflation and regional variation. The data show that donations jumped statewide from $28 million to $67 million from 2006 to 2014, the most recent year available.

However, 10 states could not be included in that analysis—either because they did not report the information or the data weren’t complete. Those states include three of the nation’s most populous: California, New York, and Texas. As a result, 1 in 3 students could not be accounted for in the federal data set used for the Education Week Research Center analysis of school finance.

Both the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics collect and clean up the data, reported as part of the bureau’s Annual Survey of School System Finances.

Stephen Cornman, an NCES project director, explained that all states turn in the survey as it can help to qualify them for other types of federal aid, but the form is not mandated by law nor must states fill out every line item.

Before 2006, districts could report private money in a miscellaneous category on the survey, and some states still do. Since the information is only reported as a final dollar amount, it’s hard to untangle how much of it is private donations, as that figure is blended with other revenue. Cornman said the agency is aware of the quality issues and will work with states “to seek possible improvement” on reporting that item.

While this analysis focused on federal survey data, researchers at both Indiana University and the Center for American Progress have looked instead at the tax filings of school foundations and parent-teacher organizations. They found that school districts where people are wealthier tend to get more in private donations, reinforcing the divide with their property-poor peers.

—Francisco Vara-Orta, Alex Harwin, & Jack Williams

In contrast, 43 percent of Sheboygan Area’s students qualify for the subsidized lunches. For Sheboygan Falls, the rate is 32 percent.

The concerns that Born alludes to—less state funding and a push from local companies to improve students’ skills to fill a shortage of 3,000 area workers—provoked the districts to more aggressively seek private funding in the past decade.

Wisconsin as a whole seems to be following a similar path. The Education Week Research Center found that statewide, private donations to districts have more than doubled, rising from an average of $32 per student in 2006 to $77 per student by 2014.

“These districts are using money for what public funding used to cover, so we have to remember that,” said state schools Superintendent Tony Evers. “Moving forward, as the private money increases in our schools, we also should be vigilant about understanding what strings may be attached.”

How the Money’s Used

In Kohler, private contributions are heavily driven through parent fundraising. The district has put the money toward technology, such as tablets to help elementary students learn coding, electronic chalkboards in every classroom from prekindergarten through high school, and state-of-the-art lab equipment for science and engineering courses.

Sheboygan Area and Sheboygan Falls have leaned more on area manufacturers for their donations—both financial and in kind—in redesigning classrooms and acquiring new equipment for their technical education programs.

The county is home to the corporate headquarters for several U.S. household names: from Kohler and Bemis, which, respectively, manufacture toilets and their accompanying seats, to Johnsonville Sausage and Sargento Foods. The latter helps export the state’s most famous product: cheese.

In actual dollars, Kohler reported $636,286 in private contributions in 2014, compared with the $641,725 Sheboygan Area brought in, and the $47,857 Sheboygan Falls had.

From 2008 to 2014, Kohler’s local revenues have meant that its overall funding was $240 to $1,694 more per pupil than that of its two neighbors. But more recently, all three districts reported nearly the same revenue overall, around $13,800 per pupil. That figure, however, can mask disparities in private donations, which districts can more easily spend as they wish.

Kohler is the smallest of the districts, about 5 square miles in size with around 740 students. Sheboygan Falls, on one side, has nearly 1,800 students, and Sheboygan Area, on the other, serves almost 10,300—14 times as many as Kohler.

Kohler educators and parents contend, though, that their size can also be a challenge because they can’t access as many resources as larger, even lower-income districts do. They rely on their neighbors to share facilities, and staff members wear multiple hats. Even Trueblood served as both high school principal and superintendent in her first two years with the district. Unlike its neighbors, the Kohler school system is housed within one building that’s arguably as unassuming as any traditional middle school campus.

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Hidden Inequities: An Education Week Analysis

Educators and the public are aware that achievement gaps often separate students of color from their higher-achieving white peers and leave low-income students lagging behind their better-off peers. Less obvious are the mechanisms and circumstances that contribute to those academic differences.

This article is the second of a series intended to shed light on the “hidden inequities” that keep education from reaching the goal of leveling the playing field for all students. Each installment is being produced by Education Week staff writers working in collaboration with the Education Week Research Center. Future installments will examine:

• District-to-district disparities in disciplinary practices used with special education students (May);

• School closings and high student-mobility rates, their impact on educational quality, and their disparate effects on different school communities (June).

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Still, the self-acknowledged private school touches are there, too. The cafeteria menu features monthly specials highlighting kale and fenugreek, with a fruit and vegetable bar and a risotto spread on Fridays prepared by the campus chef. Kohler’s campus also houses a community performing-arts center—Kohler Memorial Theatre—where musical performances by Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman have been financed with help from local patrons.

In one night at its Fall Follies event, the Kohler School Foundation, a nonprofit begun by area parents, can raise tens of thousands of dollars. One year, a disc jockey from New York who has spun parties for actress Jennifer Aniston and rapper Ludacris flew in to play the event, according to the group’s website.

Attendees bid on “reverse auction” items, where they commit on the spot to pay for an item on the district’s wish list. At the 2015 event, for example, foundation supporters raised more than $30,000 for new lab equipment for hands-on science experiments.

Academically, Kohler currently scores the highest of the three on the state’s report card. Its grade is 92 out of 100, compared with 73 for Sheboygan Falls and 66 for Sheboygan Area.

The area’s disparities are more economic than racial, as eight of the nine county districts are roughly 90 percent white. The exception is Sheboygan Area, which is 60 percent white.

Although Sheboygan Area has long pushed to get more students to attend a four-year college or university, historically only half its students have planned to, said Superintendent Joseph Sheehan. So in 2014, the district joined with private industry to launch the Red Raider Manufacturing capital campaign to raise $5 million for new technical education centers at both high schools. The centers opened this school year, their walls emblazoned with logos of the more than a dozen businesses that stepped up with $4.1 million when a federal grant fell through.

One donor was the Kohler Co., whose imprint runs deep throughout the county. Students working in the technical centers also can work as paid apprentices at the Kohler factory and potentially get hired full time after graduation. Kohler also will subsidize their higher education at nearby Lakeshore Technical College.

In nearby Sheboygan Falls, 11th grader Dylan Thiel waters plants in one of the newly constructed “hoop houses,” or greenhouses, at Sheboygan Falls High School.

A recent graduate’s starting salary can be around $52,000 annually, said John Widstrand, manager of maintenance and facilities at the Kohler Co. He helps run the apprenticeship programs, which now have roughly 230 students.

“We tend to hear a lot of negativity about manufacturing, as far as outsourcing and automation, so some parents will ask, is there really a career there that pays well and is stable for their children?” Widstrand said. “So there is a lot of work we’ve also had to do on the private-sector side to meet up to our side of the partnerships.”

Sheboygan Falls, with neither the property wealth nor the infrastructure of its neighbors, has taken a grassroots approach to fundraising that harnesses students’ entrepreneurial prowess. For its new tech center at Sheboygan Falls High School, the district acquired a 33-ton plastic-injection molding machine, also known as a 3D printer, through a partnership with Bemis, the plastics manufacturer headquartered there. Students design and make school spirit items from plastic that are sold to raise money.

Tipping its hat to the community’s historical links to agriculture, Sheboygan Falls also has used private funds to build “hoop houses,” or greenhouses, on campus. Students grow fruits and vegetables, which they use in their cafeteria and sell at farmer’s markets, using business plans they’ve developed, said Born, the district’s superintendent.

Differences Aside

For all their differences, the districts last year made a public statement of unity by joining the Sheboygan County Economic Development Corp.'s “Someplace Better” campaign, which hopes to attract new residents. It’s a symbol of how Sheboygan school leaders have navigated the dynamics of being colleagues, uniting to push back on public education funding cuts or draw more students to the county, while also being competitors.

The districts must vie for both private donors and students because Wisconsin is an open-enrollment state that allows families to enroll their children in schools outside their home district.

In 2006, the state legislature lifted the cap on the open-enrollment program, which led to double-digit growth for Kohler. Meanwhile, Sheboygan Falls saw enrollment drop by roughly 100 students during the same period. Born attributed some of the decline to manufacturing job losses and the recent recession.

Colin Fessler, center, adjusts a microscope in his 10th grade science class at Kohler High School in the neighboring district of Kohler.

Then in 2011, Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, led the charge to pass Act 10, which slashed $792 million in aid to schools, according to PolitiFact. That came after his predecessor, Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, and lawmakers cut $284 million in school district aid the previous budget year.

Walker now wants to boost state aid to schools by $509 million, trickling down to a $200-per-pupil increase for the 2017-18 school year and a $204 increase in 2018-19.

Sheboygan County school leaders aren’t holding their breath for more state aid, hence the pressure to ramp up private donations.

Kohler’s PTO president, Jennifer Kading, said there is more of an ability to donate time or money in Kohler since parents don’t pay tuition to send their children to private schools. She’s noted that many of her active co-fundraisers come from dual-income households and work in corporations there. No private or charter schools operate in the district.

“We want to help support and protect public education,” said Kading, who has three children in Kohler schools. “Yes, we are fortunate with our financial situation, for sure. But it’s a great place to put your resources, as any parent would likely want to do.”

Research analyst Alex Harwin and research intern Jack Williams contributed to this article.

Special thanks to Lori Taylor from the Bush School of Government and Public Service.
A version of this article appeared in the April 19, 2017 edition of Education Week as Can Private Funds Deepen Disparities?


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