|Office of the Chancellor / Public Affairs||
Monday, November 15, 2004
New York Times 11-15-04
Those Bake Sales Add Up, to $9 Billion or So
Camping trips in the desert. Excursions to the famed Scripps Institute on the California coast. A summer at space camp. Not to mention the other standards of a solid education: art classes, chess, sports and individual tutors.
No, it is not the roster at an exclusive private school. It's the menu of extracurricular activities offered at the public Nadaburg Elementary School in Wittmann, Ariz., where about 70 percent of the children are low income, if not more.
So where does the money come from? Not from education budgets or some benevolent foundation. The answer lies miles away, in immaculate retirement communities with names like Sun City West and Sun City Grand. The residents there may not have any grandchildren who attend the school, near Phoenix, but they have become among its staunchest patrons.
The school offers an unusual glimpse of the degree to which private fund-raising has reshaped the nation's schools. In Arizona, for example, residents are allowed to take up to $250 of their state taxes and apply it directly to any school, regardless of whether they have children who attend. Nadaburg's teachers and administrators use the rule to great advantage.
They ride buses to retirement communities nearby to sign up benefactors. They invite the people there to luncheons. They lead the children in Christmas caroling for those who have transformed their school.
"I consider it to be a legitimate, viable factor in the success of our kids academically," said Steven Yokobosky, Nadaburg's superintendent. "I mean, the kids aren't excelling, but if you look at the demographics of our school they shouldn't be doing as well as they are."
Private support of public schools has become a wide phenomenon. Big city districts look to foundations and businesses to help meet students' needs. Parents around the nation are raising money for vital school functions as state spending on education slows down.
But is all this private money enough to really change the character of schools? And does it help close the gap between wealthy and poor schools or widen it?
Public elementary and secondary schools claimed nearly $373 billion in federal, state and local revenues during the 1999-2000 school year, federal statistics show. Nearly $9 billion of that came from nongovernmental sources.
Foundations, the institutional donors with a focus on helping communities in need, gave about $1.2 billion to public and private K-12 education in 2002, according to the Foundation Center, a group in New York that works to strengthen the nonprofit sector. That is a small fraction of the amount coming from other private sources — most notably, parents.
In an informal survey of about 100 of its member organizations by the National PTA, conducted at the request of the reporter, the group concluded that parents and their communities contribute as much as if not more than $10 billion in cash and services to the nation's schools.
The gifts and services that PTA's furnish range from libraries, computer labs and playgrounds to a laundry list of smaller essentials that many districts may not be able to afford.
Parental giving and fund-raising varies widely by income level. The PTA's for the poorest 25 percent of schools surveyed typically contributed $13 to $68 a student, while the wealthiest 25 percent of schools surveyed typically donated $192 to $279.
Some experts say there is not enough evidence to prove that private money ends up favoring wealthier schools, partly because their poorer counterparts get more money from corporations and foundations. But given the lopsided amounts that parents raise, some contend that private money ultimately worsens the disparity.
"I think it clearly makes it worse," said Tom Vander Ark, the education director for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has pledged more than $1 billion to start schools serving low-income students. "But it's tricky, because we don't want to condemn individual contributions to local schools. They're certainly supporting important things for young people. It's a benign way that our society exacerbates the inequity between the rich and the poor."
There are exceptions. Nadaburg's campaign in retirement communities raised almost $244,000, or more than $488 a pupil, under the rule in 2002, researchers have found, though the area has a much higher poverty rate than the state average.
But statewide in Arizona, between 1998 and 2002, the poorest quarter of schools received a total of about $8 million in contributions under the law, according to Glen Y. Wilson, an assistant professor of education policy at the University of Connecticut, while the wealthiest quarter received more than $29 million.
Other state policies have had a similar effect, sometimes by accident. In the late 90's, Vermont legislators tried to make sure all schools had enough money, so they required districts with higher property taxes to share some of the wealth. To get around the law, about two dozen communities deliberately kept property taxes down and started local foundations that were exempt from the rules on sharing. Local residents put more than $11 million into these private funds last year, the state said.
Vermont has since changed the law, effectively dismantling these local funds, but not because they ran contrary to the spirit of sharing, state officials said. Instead, animosity developed in some towns because not everyone contributed, said Bill Talbott, chief financial officer for Vermont's education department.
When state spending on education shot up nationwide in the late 90's, buoyed by the hearty tax receipts of a forceful economy, the financial gap between rich and poor districts began to narrow, according to a report released last month by the Education Trust, a research group that aims to close the achievement gap between students. But growth in education spending has slowed considerably. Wealthier districts have made up for much of the slowdown by raising property taxes, so the financial gap between rich and poor has expanded again, the report found.
"What foundations shouldn't try to do is fund gaps in the system, or fill holes that the public ought to be filling," said William Porter, executive director of Grantmakers for Education, a network of 200 foundations. "The resources that we can put toward a problem pale in comparison to the problem itself."
As public spending on education slows, even PTA's in some of the better-off districts say they have little choice but to prop up their local schools. For example, beyond the thousands of dollars parents have raised to outfit the playground at Emerson Elementary School, a magnet school with few poor students in Westerville, Ohio, the school's PTA says it spends thousands more on essentials like library books.
"It's no longer about arranging the parties and cleaning up the playgrounds," said Trina Shanks, past president of Emerson's PTA. "It's a whole lot more."
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