"Private Funds in Public Education: An Initial Survey,"by Laryssa Mykyta, Stephanie Levin, Deborah Zubow & Robert Brand In an environment of increased challenges and decreased funding to public education in the United States, the pressure has been on public education stakeholders to find a way out of the increasingly shrinking box. One of the ways that have been found in recent years is to look for funding for public education enterprises from private sources. While the arrival of private funds to support public education functions as a small steam valve for the system, it represents a larger share of schools’ and districts’ discretionary costs. Yet, it is clear that funds from private sources do not represent a real or long-term solution for lack of public funds.November/December 2003 issue of Poverty & Race
In an environment of increased challenges and decreased funding to public education in the United States, the pressure has been on public education stakeholders to find a way out of the increasingly shrinking box. One of the ways that have been found in recent years is to look for funding for public education enterprises from private sources. While the arrival of private funds to support public education functions as a small steam valve for the system, it represents a larger share of schools’ and districts’ discretionary costs. Yet, it is clear that funds from private sources do not represent a real or long-term solution for lack of public funds.
With the support of PRRAC and the George Gund Foundation, we conducted an initial study to explore the dimensions of private fundraising for public education, especially with an eye to the distributional effects of this phenomenon on students by race and class.
Our purpose was dual. First, we wanted to understand and document the growing phenomenon of private fundraising for public education. Second, we wanted to understand and document how private fundraising efforts for public education intersect with poverty and race. Specifically, we sought to determine the extent and impact of differences in private funding across districts that vary by poverty and race.
We looked at the picture through several lenses. We performed a literature review, analyzed media reports, conducted a focus group and phone interviews, looked at National Center for Education Statistics’ Common Core of Data, and distributed an email survey to district superintendents, local education foundation and parent-teacher organization officers nationwide. We looked at the different roles of parent organizations, local education funds, and school district personnel in private fundraising. We attempted to put the private fundraising efforts we examined for this study in the context of other activities simultaneously occurring in education. In doing this, we also examined other factors that are part of the public education equation, such as private schools, supplemental education centers, equity legislation, and district spending caps, etc.
To date, the amount of money being raised for public education from private sources is tiny, but the amount has grown over the last ten years. Our survey showed local education foundations, schools, and parents raising a range from $500 to $500,000 per year, with less affluent districts raising less cash and more in-kind support. Corporate and foundation support for public schools has especially grown over this time period. Parents have long been a source of funding to supplement school budgets, and they continue to be the most commonly cited source of private funds for public education. Local education funds and districts have been getting into this arena in the last ten years. There are estimated to be as many as 4,000 LEFs in operation in the U.S. today, although the US Department of Education NCES common data set has no categories to examine this emerging effort.
Looking at our findings from the point of view of race and class gives a further dimension to the picture. As is the common practice, we defined our district income level based on the percent of free and/or reduced price lunch-eligible students in the district.
· We found that more affluent districts were more likely to benefit from the efforts of LEFs and that LEFs in those districts were able to raise more support than those in less affluent districts. More affluent districts were also more likely to report an increase in private funding efforts. Lower-income districts on the other hand were more likely to benefit from local business, corporate, or foundation support. (Although these lower-income districts were more likely to receive such support, this income in no way makes up for the disparity of funding that is the baseline difference between more affluent and less affluent districts.) Overall, the increased funding efforts on the part of more affluent districts have paid off – these districts reported an increase in the amount of money raised over the past ten years, while the amounts raised by less affluent districts were reported as remaining the same.
· LEFs were more likely to be active in districts that had a lower percentage of students of color. Districts with higher percentages of students of color were more likely to rely on district staff to carry out the work of raising private funds for their schools.
· In large measure, privately raised funds are being used for mostly the same purposes as they were ten years ago. We detected a felt tension on the part of fundraisers between their desire to provide enrichment and experimentation for their schools and the school’s/district’s increasing reliance on them for core functions. Districts with a higher percentage of students of color have changed their spending patterns for private monies more than districts with fewer students of color. Districts with more students of color are more likely to use the funds for computers, lab equipment, teacher training, and capital projects, while other districts are more likely to fund additional staff positions.
Our initial work revealed trends about private funding for public education. From this effort we are developing a set of future research questions that will help us understand the role and limitations of private monies in public education. These include:
1) Disparate impact - What can we learn about establishing adequate and equitable funding for public schools?
a. What can we learn from the way stakeholders think and act when raising private funds for public education that can inform our work to establish adequate and equitable funding to public schools?
b. Is there a relationship between poverty and the roles that organizations raising funds for public schools play?
c. How does the size of the school district impact the amount of private fund-raising?
d. What does the growth of supplemental learning centers mean for students?
2) Governance – Is accountability challenged when private dollars enter the picture?
a. To what extent do LEFs exert independent decision-making for their schools or districts, and to what extent do they do so in coordination with district and school administration?
b. What are the gender implications of all the private fundraising dollars that go to sports? How do the programs that receive private money relate to Title IX?
3) Understanding the numbers — What is the real effect of private funding?
a. What portion of school district budgets, over which administrators have control, is private funding?
b. How does the strength of the economy affect how much money is being raised for public schools?
c. How do we acquire more focused data on private fundraising? (As noted above, the National Center for Education Statistics Common Core of Data does not adequately capture this information.)
4) A new phenomenon - What has changed and what has led to this change?
a. Is private funding being used to override equalization caps?
b. To what extent have LEFs sprung up in districts that have suffered budget reversals?
c. What is the relationship between LEFs and PTAs?
Our initial analysis of the impact of private funding on public education yielded a number of results warranting the call for further examination. Overall, private funds are still an insignificant, yet growing, portion of the total public education enterprise. Yet the impact of private fundraising on public education goes beyond the additional dollars raised from private sources. The influx of money from private sources has both fiscal and ideological effects. Indeed, because the flow of private funds accounts for just a small portion of district budgets, the ideological effect of private fundraising may be more profound.
While public schools have been supported for years by the efforts of parents involved in PTAs and home-school associations, more organized, large-scale efforts to raise private monies for public schools are in their early stages. These efforts, led by LEFs, operate independently of school and district structures and may have different agendas from the schools or districts they support. As such, these efforts are not uniform in terms of scope, scale, and success. And even as these efforts are spreading across districts, they are not regulated nor subject to rigorous and consistent accounting standards.
One of the challenges we faced in assessing the impact of private fundraising for public education across districts was the lack of data. There is no public body of data that measures monies raised for public schools through private sources, documents the sources of these funds, addresses private funds’ impact on district budgets, and notes how these funds are used. Further, there is no public body of data open to interpretation that enables interested researchers to measure the impact of private monies by race and class.
Universal public education has historically been considered a route to social progress, and there has been strong public support for universal public education. However, over the last decade(s), we have witnessed an increasing trend toward privatization of public functions throughout society. Further, the increase in private fundraising for public education, as well as the growth of private tutoring services and supplemental learning centers parallels this trend. These phenomena raise important questions concerning the definition of public education and what the public expects from a system of public education. If there has been an erosion in what the public expects from its public schools, then the increased professionalization of private fundraising efforts and the growth of educational services are seen as substitutes for services previously demanded of the universal public education system. To the extent that such services are increasingly sought privately or paid for with private monies, stakeholders (parents, government officials) offer less support for schools’ efforts and for public education as a whole.
The implications of these changes for less affluent communities and for communities dominated by students of color are profound. The universal public education system, at least in theory if not in practice, guaranteed equal opportunity. If educational opportunity for a community’s children is defined by the private resources that community can garner, then the increasing emphasis on private funds and services will exacerbate inequality across districts. It is therefore essential to examine whether the privatization of learning—as measured by the dual phenomena of increased private fundraising efforts and the growth in private supplemental educational services—is distributed unequally by race and class.
Robert Brand is President of Solutions for Progress in Philadelphia firstname.lastname@example.org
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