Public Schools and “Philanthropy”

What role should philanthropy and fundraising play in the operations of our public schools?  We like to believe that, through local taxes and state taxes and a little help from our friends in Washington, we have more than enough to fund a high-quality public education.  Yet in an era of school improvement and school turnarounds, we hear more and more about the need for corporate and philanthropic support for our public schools.  We listen to calls for alternative funding for teacher salaries and instructional interventions and new school models.  We know of virtually every major public school districts clamoring for moneys from the Gates Foundation, and Broad, and Wallace, and just about anyone else who is willing to invest in K-12 school improvement.

Over the weekend, The Washington Post ran a column by Robert McCarthy talking about the current struggles DCPS is enduring to secure those much needed private funds.  As the legend goes, DCPS Chancellor is asking many a deep pocket for funding to help pay for her turnaround of the schools in our nation’s capital.  Some money, particularly that being raised by the recently established DC Public Education Fund, is still on the ledger sheet (important since much of this money is intended to pay for Rhee’s new teacher pay system, whereby we eliminate tenure and boost salaries for high-performing teachers).  But much of the typical philanthropy that has flowed into DC appears to be in doubt, with traditional DC philanthropists concerned about how their money is being spent and how DCPS will be held accountable as responsible stewards of the dollars.  The full story can be found here.
While issues of accountability are important, and surely donors should know specifically how their education dollars are being spent, the issue in Washington, DC raises a significantly more important concern.  In an era where our urban school districts are spending between $15,000 and $20,000 per student for public education, why is that not adequate resources for an effective public education?  Should the success of our struggling school districts really require the kindness of strangers to provide a core education to every student?
Perhaps I am naive here, but it seems that school budgets should be constructed so they are addressing all of the necessary expenditures of operating a school district — salaries, buildings, transportation, textbooks and instructional materials, technology, breakfasts and lunches, athletics and extracurriculars, even afterschool programs.  Such funds should be constant each and every year.  If a district hits a patch where the committed dollars coming in from federal, state, and local sources are inadequate for meeting the educational needs of the students, then we have a problem.  Then (as we are experiencing now) we tap emergency funding, make difficult decisions, and try to carry on.  Rarely does the acceptance of a grant (along with the oversight, redtape, and additional accountability provisions attached to it) allow one to backfill such cuts.  And that shouldn’t be their intention.
Third-party donations, be they from philanthropies, corporations, or one-time federal grant programs, are meant to supplement and provide value-add to the core instructional day.  They are used to bring in a new program designed to help a segment of the student population.  They are used to provide targeted professional development and support to teachers.  They are used to jumpstart a new effort or say bring in a new computer lab.  But they are not designed to be funds to support the ongoing operations nor are they dollars guaranteed to continue for the perpetuity of a school’s existence. 
And that really becomes the danger with the path some are now pursuing.  Yes, philanthropy plays an essential role in education reform and school improvement.  Targeted dollars can be used to spearhead specific initiatives, act where action was previously impossible, and generally goose a school into change and reform it may have previously ignored.  But it is not a continuous spigot of funds designed to supplement the dedicated moneys coming from the government.  Philanthropic support is designed to have a specific beginning and a specific end.  It falls to states and school districts to use a grant period well, build the reform into their core operating structure, and carry on — both financially and operationally — well after the third-party support is gone.  Otherwise, we simply move from one latest and greatest idea to the next, with nothing taking hold and nothing having real impact.
We are running a real danger here when we expect that philanthropic support for our schools is intended to help fund core operations in our classrooms.  Such supports are intended to innovate and spur action where it otherwise may not be possible.  But if we are extending a hand out to ensure adequate funding of per-pupil expenditures and core instruction, we have a much larger issue to address.  We should be strengthening our schools to improve based on the resources available.  Outside funding then helps us accelerate the process.    

472 thoughts on “Public Schools and “Philanthropy”

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