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Funding schools with donations pits need against fairness

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

by Paul Jablow

Sometime in the next couple of weeks, the Bornstein family, of Mill Valley, Calif., will receive a letter asking them to pay almost $2,500 to their public school district through a local foundation.

The notice will come from Kiddo!, whose well-crafted website describes it as “made up of people like you who give generously to provide arts, technology, classroom and library aides, P.E. and innovative teaching programs for children in Mill Valley’s K-8 public schools.”

Michael Bornstein is executive director of Evolve, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that advocates for greater government support of public education, as well as affordable health care and job creation. And although he can afford it, he has mixed feelings about writing the check for his two elementary-school children.

“Philosophically,” he says, “I think this should be paid for with public funds. But on a personal level, it’s needed. Without it, there wouldn’t be art and music. Practically every parent is going to do what’s best for their kid.”

In recent weeks, many Philadelphia School District parents, mostly from schools where the population is more affluent by local standards, have also been asked to donate money to help make up for devastating budget cuts that threatened to leave schools without counselors, noontime aides, and other key personnel. At two schools, the request for donations from families included a recommended dollar amount.

The amounts requested — $670 per student at Meredith Elementary and $613 at Greenfield Elementary — are modest by standards in California. There, professional-level parent fundraising has become standard since 1978, when Proposition 13 sharply reduced local governments’ and school districts’ ability to raise property taxes.

But in Philadelphia, some have started raising questions of equity, because even the sums requested by schools here would be out of reach for most parents in many schools.

At Thursday night’s public meeting of the School Reform Commission, questions were raised about a resolution accepting a $228,000 gift from the Home and School Association at Science Leadership Academy that would pay the salary and benefits for two teachers. District spokesman Fernando Gallard said he believed it was the largest gift from a parent group in recent years.

Joan Taylor, a teacher at Middle Years Alternative School, told the SRC that the gift allowed the school to set itself up as a “gated community,” apart from the District’s bare-bones budget.

“Can we now expect to see more schools or neighborhoods that are prosperous do the same?" she asked. “Knowing what we know of our governor, don’t you think he’s congratulating himself on having pushed the SLA parents to pick up the tab?”

In a statement released Wednesday, Parents United for Public Education said that “public education must remain free and available to all children regardless of background … Schools this year may have to resort to one-time measures for an extraordinary situation, but this is neither sustainable nor in any way admirable on behalf of the District. It will inevitably lead to gross disparity among schools or a dearth of resources.

“To force parents by sheer desperation into seeking funds to ensure their high school senior has a guidance counselor, or that phones get answered in the office, or for there to be an assistant principal to help with school climate is an abdication of the District’s and the state’s core responsibility to the students and families of the city.”

Two members of Philadelphia’s state legislative delegation also expressed concern about the donations issue.

“It’s a slippery slope,” said Rep. James Roebuck, a Central High School alumnus who contributes regularly to the school’s alumni fund, which paid for its library. “The concern I have is for parents who can’t [contribute].”

Sen. Vincent Hughes called the fundraising efforts “a commendable effort” by parents, but “the problem is when there’s a cut in resources and some communities don’t have the capacity to fund extra resources. … The state is walking away from its responsibilities.”

‘Not the kind of fundraising we want’

Gallard said that the District wants parents, faculty, and staff to seek and make contributions to the schools. But he said a direct appeal asking for a per-child contribution “is not the kind of fundraising we want to see.”

He noted that with one exception — Masterman High School — every school in the District has a student population that is more than 50 percent disadvantaged and that gifts to the schools invariably help low-income students. But in schools where the parent income level is low, he said, “We have to help those principals.”

He cited the Philadelphia Burger Brawl, a fundraising effort that started at Meredith but has been expanded to buy computers for all elementary schools.

James H. “Torch” Lytle, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and a former assistant superintendent in the District, said he also has serious reservations about depending on parent fundraising, feeling that it will almost surely contribute to inequities between schools. But he added, “If my kids were going to Greenfield, I’d be leading the fundraising.”

Lytle said he has previously warned about an increasing resources gap, not just between public and private schools but also within the public school community, with disparities among charters, selective public schools, and neighborhood schools.

“We’re testing the question of how little we can spend,” he said. “Philadelphia is becoming the poster child for the segmenting of opportunity.”

The Philadelphia School District’s official policy on donations was last revised in 2001 and does not appear to anticipate gifts that pay for staff salaries. It states that gifts to “enhance or extend the instructional program” must be approved by the School Reform Commission if they are $20,000 or more. Below that level, the SRC asks for monthly reports from each school.

Donations for basic instructional support, such as staff salaries, date back at least to 2000, when the University of Pennsylvania began supporting Penn Alexander School. It now pays for six teachers. That precedent was cited recently by District officials when the Philadelphia School Partnership made grants to support teacher salaries at two schools.

Campaigns by home and school associations, alumni associations, and individual schools have continued to pay for “extras” ranging from supplies and the library at Central to recess programs. But more recent fund drives, brought about by budget cuts, have funded staff positions at Central, Cook-Wissahickon Elementary and now SLA.

“We never asked parents for direct contributions,” said Sheldon S. Pavel, principal at Central from 1984 until his retirement last year. “That would have divided the school.”

Pavel said the request from Meredith — made jointly by principal Cindy Farlino and the Home and School Association — was the first he knew of setting out a dollar figure. The request from Greenfield came directly from principal Dan Lazar.

Lazar, who could not be reached for comment, earlier told NewsWorks that he considered the request “drastic” and hoped it would not have to be repeated. Farlino did not respond to interview requests from NewsWorks and the Notebook.

‘The only option’

To Michael Kirst, president of the California State Board of Education, organized fundraising by foundations such as Kiddo! was “the only option” after the passage of Proposition 13.

Kirst, a Stanford University education professor emeritus who headed the board from 1977 to 1981 and returned to the post in 2011, said, however, that some efforts had been made to provide for school districts with parent populations of limited means.

In some cases, including Mill Valley, donations to the foundation go to the entire district. The Bornsteins, for example, cannot earmark their contribution to their children’s school: The allocation is made by the six-school district and the foundation.

But this, Kirst said, has generally been agreed on only in districts that are “cohesive politically” and even there, “it’s a hot issue.” For the schools in lower-income areas, California’s funding formula provides additional support.

But despite parental giving, overall school funding in California has dropped sharply. Proposition 13, Kirst said only half-jokingly, “has been better for equality and worse for quality.” In the category of school finance, the most recent state report card by the journal Education Week gives California an “F” in spending and an “A-” in equity.

That may change soon after approval of Proposition 30 last November, increasing taxes on high-income residents to fund education. Gov. Jerry Brown had campaigned for the initiative, which was expected to lose at the polls, but passed with a huge turnout of young and minority voters.

“Sometimes,” said Kirst, “things have to get really bad before they get better.”

Here in Philadelphia, Torch Lytle is simply feeling “despair” about the current situation.

Lytle said that the District could be more “aggressive” in helping low-income parents support their schools through volunteering and “sweat equity.” But no school-based efforts can make up for the lack of government support, he said

“I don’t see the political leadership in Philadelphia taking on these issues.”

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