New York

From Yankee Tickets to Golf Games, School Fundraisers Reach New Heights

How do high-powered donations affect inequities between rich and poor?

Four tickets to a Yankee game. Golf for a dozen in the oceanside resort of Westhampton, New York, cocktails included. Even Lasik eye surgery.

All were prizes for Public School 116’s Spring Benefit Auction in May. Fundraising for the New York City elementary school has come a long way from bake sales and car washes.

The school’s PTA, through all of its efforts, contributed $243,000 to school supplies, programs and activities for the 2016 school year, and has an additional $88,000 to spend. But even that is pocket money compared to the $1 million or more routinely taken in by a cluster of public schools in Manhattan’s pricier neighborhoods.

Schools across the country use donations to pay for everything from musical instruments to computers, money officials say is needed given cuts in state and local funding. Rich and not-so-rich parents eager to ensure their children lack for nothing fill in the gaps.

“A lot of parents are very happy to help,” said Falu Shah, the vice president of external fundraising for P.S. 116’s PTA. “Everybody — at least for the final fundraiser, the auction -- a lot of parents who are not regularly in PTA — get involved. We want to encourage parents to do that because you don’t have to come regularly but at least for this one thing where our school depends on your funding.”

But what about schools in poorer neighborhoods where parents cannot afford such luxuries? What kind of divide is created when they cannot match their counterparts’ fundraising abilities?

“Schools can’t depend on handouts, whether it’s handouts from private foundations or from parents, to make up the shortfalls in what public funding is required to provide them,” said Jessica Wolff, the policy director at the Campaign for Educational Equity at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York City. It is unfair, inequitable and, in New York, unconstitutional, she said.

Wolff said that as much as she applauded parents who wanted to support their children’s schools, they were put in a terrible position when public funding falls short of what is needed even for such basics as paper and cleaning supplies.

A study from Indiana University in 2014 found that the number of nonprofits founded to benefit schools more than tripled between 1995 and 2010, from 3,475 to 11,453. The amount they raised quadrupled, from $197 million to $880 million, according to the study by Beth Gazley, a professor at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs, and Ashlyn Aiko Nelson, an associate professor at the school. 

Rob Reich, a political science and education professor at Stanford University, said that private fundraising by parents, while well meaning, only exacerbates inequalities. Wealthy districts already spend more per pupil in public dollars, and the problem worsens when philanthropic dollars are added, he said.

He looked at dollars raised by schools in the San Francisco Bay area in 2013, comparing such wealthy communities as Menlo Park and Palo Alto with Oakland and San Jose, and found enormous differences in the amount contributed per pupil. Data showed parents in Oakland and San Francisco districts were able to raise less than $100 per child. By contrast, Menlo Park asked parents for $1,500 per child; Palo Alto, $800 per child; and the school foundation in tony Hillsborough, California, $2,300.

“So even though you’re supporting the public schools and in that respect your own kid in the public schools, you’re magnifying the existing funding inequalities between Palo Alto and Oakland,” said Reich, who wrote about the private fund raising in a New York Times op-ed in 2013.

Tax incentives for charitable donations ought to put weight on assistance to the disadvantaged, he said. Instead, charitable giving by wealthy parents not only lowers the taxes the donor has to pay but also cuts into tax revenues that would have been distributed equally to rich and poor schools.

He gave these possible solutions: Don’t treat donations to wealthy schools as a charitable contribution under the tax code or double the incentive to give to a school that primarily serves children who receive free- or reduced-priced lunches.

But the support has limits and others question how much impact donations can really have compared to public education funding on the whole. All charitable giving, from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to a local PTA, contributed only about $2 billion to public schools each year, said Jay P. Greene, a professor of education and political science at the University of Arkansas.

That’s “buckets into the sea” compared to the $600 billion the United States spends on K-12 education each year, he said.

Because of the scale, private philanthropy cannot change public education with money alone, he said. Nor do foundations have enough political power to sustain changes over time if parents and others do not support them, he said. But foundations can change public policy if they leverage their money — convincing a state to adopt a law allowing charter schools, for example.

“They can help create a policy but then others have to benefit from that policy, become constituents and advocate for that policy on their own, independent of the foundation,” Greene said. “If that doesn’t happen, whatever policy change they attempt will die because it won’t have the enduring political support it needs to survive.”

Gazley and others note that even if public money dwarfs donations overall, the differences in private fund raising can matter to individual schools.

“When you view it case by case it is a problem because it makes people in those communities feel unequal in terms of the way is raised and also possibly get unequal services,” she said.

Some experts argue that there is not enough information about private money to show that it works to the advantage of rich schools. Corporations and organizations such as the Gates Foundation could even out inequalities by giving more to poor schools.

Wolff isn't convinced by the argument. 

“That doesn’t ring true to me at all,” she said.

Wolff agreed that there was too little accountability for private funding of schools, and that poor schools got federal money that wealthier schools did not. But none of the private donations are enough to make up for what is not being provided in public funding, she said.

Meanwhile, at P.S. 116, a school in the Kips Bay neighborhood on the East Side of Manhattan, parents are paying for professional development for the faculty, enrichment programs for the children and books and materials for all of the classrooms. 

Shah said she had never felt pressure to donate. 

“Absolutely not,” she said. “Our principal, Jane Hsu, is absolutely fantastic. She has never asked us once. We do it because we want to support the school.”

The most recent data on the school provided by the New York City Department of Education shows that 92 percent of parents thought their children's instruction was rigorous. Sixty-six percent of students meet New York state standards on the state's English test; 58 percent on the math test. The pass rate of the school's former fifth-graders in their sixth-grade math, English, social studies and science classes is 95 percent.  

Kips Bay has long been popular with young New Yorkers who work at the United Nations and the major hospitals on First Avenue but more families are moving in. 

Shah said that the moment parents get involved with the PTA, they start thinking about ways to raise money, Shah said. Everyone comes together to help in any way they can, she said.

“Because our school is superb,” she said. “P.S. 116 is just out of this box. The teachers are so amazing. Even the teachers donate.”

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