Growing fundraising gap raises school equity questions

Support from private nonprofits favors districts where parents have higher incomes

Aggressive parent fundraising to support athletic teams, buy school equipment and pay for field trips further widens disparities between affluent and economically challenged schools and districts, according to recent research.

The number of nonprofit parent-run organizations that raise funds for school programs rose from 3,475 in 1995 to 11,453 in 2010, according to “The Rise of School-Supporting Nonprofits” a 2014 study by researchers Beth Gazley and Ashlyn Aiko Nelson of Indiana University.

In that span, the amount of money raised annually went from $197 million to $880 million. Since the study’s publication those numbers have swelled to now nearly 17,000 organizations bringing in donations estimated to exceed $2 billion.

Schools and districts in more affluent areas benefit the most because parents in those areas generally have the financial resources and organizational skills required to generate larger sums. And although support from private nonprofits remains a drop in the bucket compared to overall taxpayer funding, it still favors districts whose parents have higher incomes and participate regularly in school activities.

“No question, philanthropic capacity makes a difference” says Gazley, an associate professor at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. “Administrators in a district with high philanthropic capacity will say, ‘Thank goodness we have local community members who will fill in the gap.’ They just end up with a better school and more stuff. But the other school districts say, ‘What in the world happened to publicly funded education?'”

In 2014, the PTA of Grattan Elementary School in the prosperous Haight section of San Francisco raised about $1,000 per student while Junipero Serra Elementary School, in economically challenged Bernal Heights a few miles away, could muster only $25 per student, according to published reports.

Though both schools are part of San Francisco USD, a district budget crisis forced Junipero Serra to lay off teachers while Grattan expanded programs. Similar stories can be found in New York, Chicago and Denver.

“Do we want philanthropy running our schools given that public education is intended to be the great equalizer and has been very effective with the way funding is redistributed and normalized across school districts?” says Gazley.

Fundraising guidelines vary from state to state and district to district, with none based on need. The few federal restrictions—other than those requiring fundraising groups to register with the IRS—revolve around banning sugary foods at bake sales due to health concerns.

Tennessee law requires any school-supporting organization to register with the state and to be approved by the local superintendent. This way, local districts keep an eye on fundraising, know who is doing it and how much is being raised, says Gazley.

“That’s a very small step” says Gazley, “but one in the right direction.”

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