How Good Parents and Good Intentions Lead to Dramatically Unequal Schools

Guest post by Laura McKenna, former political science professor, blogger, and freelance writer

With the cutbacks in school funding, many school districts are creating education foundations to supplement programs in the schools.

Local education foundations (LEF) are 503(c)(3) groups formed in local school districts. They usually provide funding for auxiliary educational activities or after school activities, like Lego Leagues, music programs, or special field trips. Unlike PTA groups, they tend to focus on gathering large scale donations from local businesses or corporations.

There are wide variations in how much these groups can collect based on the wealth of the community. In a report in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Rob Reich points to two communities and their foundations. In wealthy Woodside, CA, which has a median household income of $171,000, the foundation collected $10 million between 1998 and 2003. A nearby town with an average income of $45,000 does not have a foundation, but it could use one to provide basic necessities for the school like textbooks and classroom supplies.

Reich also writes that individuals and business who donate to these foundations receive tax breaks. In other words, government is subsidizing foundations that channel money to wealthy school districts. The poor school districts that are unable to create these foundations receive nothing. Ultimately, charitable donations are not going to areas where it is needed most.

In Slate magazine in November, Helaine Olen described the impact of wealthy school foundations in California.

One elementary school is so adept at getting its wealthy parents to open their checkbooks that it is able to spend an additional $2,000 per student on enrichment activities, which include employing multiple reading and instructional assistants, as well as classes in chorale music, marine science, and art. But at another Santa Monica-Malibu Unified school, located just a few miles away, a significant percentage of the kids come from economically disadvantaged homes and the local PTA can't even muster up an additional $100 per child, leaving the students to make do with a truncated music program, a few art classes, and one measly instructional assistant. 

A couple of years ago, I was a trustee on our town's school foundation. The total budget for the foundation was extremely small, in part because the foundation was only two years old. The bigger problem was that we lived in a town of modest means. The foundation competed with the PTAs and the baseball teams for $25 donations from the local pharmacy and bagel shop. There were no corporate headquarters in town or hedge fund managers to milk for cash.

Still, the foundation did a lot of good even with its tiny budget. It provided money and parental support for a Lego League and a small school garden. It brought in a different set of parents to the school; it attracted people who were more comfortable in a corporate board room, rather than a PTA bake sale. As a big believer in the power of parental involvement in schools, I have to cheer for this development.

Foundations are part in parcel with other efforts in wealthier communities to supplement education. The local middle schools in our area send kids on three day trips to Boston or DC and ask parents to cover the tab. One town asked that each parent pay over $900 per child.

Infusions of cash from parents, PTAs, and foundations are invisible donations to schools, which may be increasing school inequity. Both Reich and Olen are concerned about this development. At the same time, these foundations are also a new means for parental involvement and have the potential to bring in money into starving school districts, as well as wealthy districts.

Since this is a blog post, rather than a proper article, I have decided to take the coward's way out of this argument and let the readers decide. Tell me what you think.