PTA donations worsen school funding inequity–it’s time to redistribute the wealth

I’ve been thinking  a lot about a recent New York Times story, which detailed the parental donation divide in a suburban Los Angeles school district. The district includes two communities with very different fortunes–Malibu (overwhelmingly affluent) and Santa Monica (more mixed income, with nearly a third of students qualifying as low-income).

Turns out Malibu was taking in a lot more money than Santa Monica during its PTA fundraisers–money needed to cover not only enrichment and extras but some classroom basics because California schools are so strapped for property taxes–so the superintendent wisely decided to distribute the money evenly across the district’s 11 schools.

But I guess the idea of working toward some kind of spending equity so riled some privileged Malibu parents that they are again pushing to secede from the district and create a school system just for Malibu students, in part so Malibu parents can ensure the PTA donations are spent on their own children. As one Malibu parent argues:

Craig Foster, a school board member from Malibu who favors separation, said parents voluntarily giving money wanted to see the fruits of their donations. An ideal PTA system gives a parent “the opportunity to put your money where your heart is,” said Mr. Foster, a former managing director at Morgan Stanley and Credit Suisse. “It has to be an emotional appeal, and it has to be for the benefit of the donor.”

I’m sorry Mr. Foster’s heart doesn’t extend much farther than his backyard. But think about that last statement for a moment: A donation “has to be for the benefit of the donor.” Is that really why people give money to help educational organizations–just to help their own child? if so, why bother with the charitable middle man–wouldn’t it be easier just to spend those thousands on tutors, travel and test prep if you just want to help your own family? (Just kidding, I know some of this is about tax write-offs and bragging rights…)

Seriously, what’s happening in Malibu and Santa Monica is a reflection of a much larger problem nationwide, one that was detailed in a recent research report, as explained in the Times article:

“The powerful appeal of helping one’s own child has turned the apple-pie PTA into a mirror of society’s larger stratification. According to a new report by the Center for American Progress, a liberal advocacy group, schools that serve just one-tenth of 1 percent of American students collect 10 percent of the estimated $425 million that PTAs raise nationwide each year.”

As the CAP report further explains:

“PTAs provide a small but growing slice of the funding for the nation’s public education system … the concentration of these dollars in affluent schools results in considerable advantages for a small portion of already advantaged students.

This situation risks deepening school funding disparities, which already exacerbate inequities. In many states, state and local funds allocate more money to affluent districts and schools than neighboring districts and schools that have higher rates of poverty. According to a U.S. Department of Education report based on 2008-09 data, 40 percent of schools that received Title I money received significantly less state and local money than non-Title I schools. Twenty-three states spent more on affluent districts than high-poverty districts. In Pennsylvania, for example, the districts with the highest levels of poverty received 33 percent less state and local funding for education than affluent districts.”

So how do we fix this? I don’t think it’s possible to force parents to care about other people’s kids or the fact that working-class and low-income students in cash-strapped schools are getting shortchanged when it comes to programs, supplies and top-notch teachers. If you are an affluent parent who begrudges a high-poverty school its federal Title I dollars–then you are not going to be inclined to donate money to help students from less privileged schools.

I suspect the solution lies with policy makers and school leaders, who must step up and do the right but rare thing–redistribute PTA donations into a centralized school foundation.

The former superintendent in the Santa Monica-Malibu district was called “crusading” for risking the wrath of wealthy donors. But school funding equity shouldn’t have to be a “crusade.” It should be a fundamental right.

Photo courtesy of the New York Times

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Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy loves to ask questions and write stories. She roots for the underdog, wants our nation to reimagine schools and the teaching profession, and seethes about how much school inequity she sees. She spent most of her career as a journalist covering schools and crime. She and her husband raised two daughters in a diverse suburb of Chicago. She currently runs an education foundation in her community and formerly served as managing editor of Education Post. After leaving journalism she explored her wonkier side communicating school research at the University of Chicago and the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education. She is Californian by birth and a Chicagoan in spirit. She loves the outdoors and all animals, especially her spoiled "dingo" dog.

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