Sunday, June 03, 2007

Investing in Schools (Literally)

Inequitable, stratified school funding is one of the reasons propounded as a cause of the Achievement Gap, or the observed disparity on a number of educational measures between the performance of groups of students, especially groups defined by gender, race/ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Apart from the apportionment normally divvied up from your taxes, our schools are also funneled money from their respective communities:

In those final weeks before summer vacation, when temperatures can soar into the 90s, parents at 5 of Greenwich’s 11 elementary schools without adequate air-conditioning could no longer watch their children wilt, along with the crayons, in the heat. So they approached the school board and air-conditioning was installed — but not at the expense of property taxpayers; the parents raised the money.

Students in two other elementary schools in town, without the same deep-pocketed parents, had to wait, however. They were finally granted air-conditioning after town officials squeezed the upgrades into capital budgets financed by taxpayers.

In the last decade, a growing number of parents, alumni and corporations have been donating private money to public schools for a wide range of school equipment, educational supplies, artists-in-residence and accouterments that go beyond the traditional PTA gifts and what may otherwise be outside the local school board’s spending plan.

This growing partnership between schools and families offers us another arena of controversy, especially within the context of student achievement being impacted along socioeconomic lines by differently resourced schools in differently resourced communities. Is it fair that students in the quoted scenario above were offered air conditioning at different times based on the level of privilege of the homes they are growing up in? The issue burns brighter when the focus shifts from "Who gets air conditioning sooner?" to "Who gets extra-curricular activities?" and "Who gets more textbooks?"

Gift caps have been put in place by some districts, but they are not the best solution, as some communities cannot donate nearly as much as the legal amount, while other communities have had success in "negotiating" with districts to donate more than the allowed amount to their schools:

It was just those kinds of disparities that led the Greenwich school board to impose gift caps 10 years ago on what schools can accept in total each year from parents and other sources. These days, the caps have been hovering at about $64,600 per elementary school and $104,500 per middle school.

Despite those controls, a board of education analysis dated September 2005 showed “continuing inequities among schools,” with the largest variation evident at the elementary school level. Hamilton Avenue received as little as $17,022 in gifts in the 2004-5 school year, $7,811 of which was contributed by its parent-teacher association. Eight other elementary schools received well in excess of $50,000 apiece from their parent-teacher associations.

One of the more promising ideas is to create nonprofit foundations that meter out contributions to all schools of a district. There are approximately 5,000 such foundations, found in 1 out of every 3 school districts nationwide.

Unfortunately, in an effort to cash in on private philanthropy, these foundations are often put in place to compensate for individual donations given to separate schools:

In California, where parents first started educational foundations in response to a statewide law capping property taxes, the combined district of Santa Monica and Malibu requires that 15 percent of the gifts from parents to individual schools must go in an “equity fund” that is administered by an independent foundation. That money then provides block grants that have the potential to “improve the achievement of all students,” according to the district’s Web site.

The $330,000 that the equity fund took in this year, according to Linda Gross, the chairwoman of the foundation, goes a long way toward smoothing out differences in a district where one parent-teacher association raises $25,000 a year and another raises $750,000.

While the paltry 15% might help smooth out differences in funding for our schools, we could eliminate those differences if contributions to individual schools were restricted, or at least promote more equality if stronger gift caps were implemented and the "equity fund" was increased. These funding disparities are appalling and they detriment society by prohibiting education from truly being the great equalizer.

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