How Rich Parents Can Exacerbate School Inequality

Fundraising efforts often give their kids an academic edge.

Stewart Cohen / Blend Images / Corbis

I’m a card-carrying member of three parent school associations. I write the weekly newsletter for the special-education parents’ group and help organize social events for disabled kids. But my involvement is minimal compared to the extraordinary efforts by others who raise money for schools in our town. With fundraising skills honed by former careers in business and law, these parents tap into the deep pockets of residents to collect large sums of money, which purchase items as small as a doormat in front of the school for muddy boots to costly gifts, like Chromebooks for every child. These groups also assist those in the community who are less affluent, providing college scholarships and helping create social connections for marginalized families with special-needs children.

But is all this work from parent-school groups—work that is done with the best of intentions—unfairly increasing advantages in already privileged communities? Are my volunteer activities magnifying the differences between rich and poor school districts? Education policy experts disagree about the impact of these groups in schools.

Parents often raise money for their schools through local affiliates of the national Parent Teacher Association or, more commonly, independent parent-teacher organizations. Booster clubs support specific activities at local schools, such as sports teams, raising money for football gear, cultural field trips, and the like. Some towns also establish nonprofit, parent-run foundations, that assist public schools but operate independently from the district. Corporations and individuals receive tax benefits for their donations to these groups.

Clearly, affluent communities have greater financial resources to support their schools. Parents there also have the time and social capital needed to organize elaborate fundraisers and fill out the lengthy legal paperwork required to establish these foundations. With these enormous resources, parents in affluent communities can raise far more money for their schools than parents in other locations.

This extreme fundraising prowess is seen in wealthy communities across the country. Some parents groups at elite public schools in New York City, for example, raise so much money that their schools have earned the nickname “public privates.” School foundations at places like Brooklyn Tech, raise millions to fund science equipment, guest lecturers, and scholarships for summer programs. An elementary school in a wealthy area of Chicago raised $400,000 in one night with an auction that included airfare to vacation homes (while another school in a less-affluent neighborhood raised only $8,000 for the entire year with bake sales and book fairs). The school foundation for Woodside, California, will hold an auction in May that includes six tickets, a makeover, and a limo to a Taylor Swift concert (valued at $3,700), a shopping spree at a jewelry store (valued at $15,000), and a week at a vacation home in the Hamptons (valued at $15,000).

However, it is difficult to ascertain exactly how much money parent groups and foundations funnel into U.S. public schools as a whole. Estimates range from $2 billion to $4 billion per year. In a 2014 study, the public-policy researchers Ashlyn Nelson and Beth Gazley from Indiana University found that the number of parent-led groups raising at least $25,000 annually jumped from 3,500 in 1995 to 11,500 in 2010. These groups collected about $880 million total in 2010. Not surprisingly, these successful groups were concentrated in wealthy communities.

In a 2013 New York Times op-ed, Rob Reich, a professor of political science and education at Stanford and the co-director of the university’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, critiqued the fundraising efforts of parents in wealthy communities. “Charity like this is not relief for the poor. It is, in fact, the opposite,” he wrote. “Private giving to public schools widens the gap between rich and poor. It exacerbates inequalities in financing. It is philanthropy in the service of conferring advantage on the already well-off.” In an interview, Reich told me that wealthy communities often collect millions of dollars not by selling cupcakes at bake sales but by holding auctions with items that include tickets to the Super Bowl. Their proceeds, he contended, purchase items for their school that go far beyond additional niceties, such as lights on the football field, and are connected to the core enrichment of the school district, including science labs, performing arts centers, technology, and additional personnel, ultimately giving these students even more of competitive edge over their peers in poorer neighborhoods.

But Jay P. Greene, a professor of education and political science at the University of Arkansas, said that the money collected by parents is insignificant relative to the total amount spent every year on public schools. According to Greene, who’s written many scholarly articles over the years about philanthropy, most recently contributing a chapter to The New Education Philanthropy: Politics, Policy and Reform, charitable sources, from the Gates Foundation to the local parent-teacher organization, contribute an estimated $2 billion total to public schools annually. When compared to the $600 billion the country spent on K-12 education during the 2013 fiscal year, he noted, the total spending from philanthropy is “buckets into the sea.”

“The millions that the PTAs and foundations raise every years seems like a lot of money,” Greene said, “but in truth, it’s a rounding error.” Greene faulted the media for overestimating the impact of wealthy parents groups, criticizing reporters for sensationalizing $1 million donations and blaming them for causing disparities.

Still, Reich emphasized that the money raised by these groups, however small, is concentrated in certain communities. In his Times op-ed, Reich contrasted the fundraising efforts across school districts in California. He found that parents in the wealthy suburb of Hillsborough, California, raised about $2,300 per student on top of the district’s standard per-pupil allocation. Through online auctions whose items included a vacation on an island off of Belize in a house with a dedicated butler and a trip to see to the final episode of The Bachelor, they financed class-size reductions, librarians, art, and music teachers, along with smart technology in every classroom. In contrast, a foundation in Oakland raised only $100 per child. And, Reich said, parent foundations are nonexistent in most of the country’s poor cities and rural areas.

Reich also pointed out that when wealthy people give money to their town foundations, their tax-deductable donations stay in their own communities. The contributions enhance the schools’ success, which in turn increases the donors’ property value. In other words, the rich receive tax credits for giving money to themselves. “All of us are subsidizing the magnification of inequality in public schools,” he told me. It’s preposterous.”

Parental fundraising activities may even detract from local political activity, too, according to Reich. These highly educated, affluent parents, he said, use their finite energy and wallets to do some something that exclusively benefits their children. As a result, the parents may be less likely to advocate for policy changes that would benefits kids in other school districts, taking away some of their “political voice,” Reich theorized. Instead of going to Trenton or Albany to fight for public schools, they are running the town’s science fair.

Neither Greene nor Reich recommend restricting parents groups as they raise money for their schools. Greene believes that the best way to decrease inequality in schools is to focus on recruiting higher quality teachers to work in disadvantaged school districts, perhaps with higher salaries, while Reich thinks that policy reforms, like eliminating the charitable status of these education foundations, would make this system more fair.

Greene added that preventing parents from raising money for the schools would undermine parents’ connections with their schools. Their fundraising efforts, whether they be bake sales or fancy dinners at a country club, create a reservoir of good feelings for schools. He asked, “do we really want to kill that reservoir?” Besides, if the rich can’t provide their schools with playgrounds and laptops, they’ll send their kids to private schools and opt out of public education all together.

Rather than restricting affluent parents from contributing to their public schools or shaming them for their efforts, perhaps they could be encouraged to think about public education beyond their town boundaries—partnering with schools in less affluent areas and forging a fellowship over time. In better understanding that public education extends beyond the five-mile radius of their communities, parents might be willing to share a portion of their considerable resources and social capital to benefit other kids.