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Public School, Private Donations: The Money Debate

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This article comes to us courtesy of California Watch

By Eleanor Yang Su

School foundations and PTAs used to raise money for the extras - high-tech projectors and special field trips. But these days, private donations to schools have grown dramatically and are being used to prevent teacher layoffs, keep libraries open, and save music and foreign-language classes.

California K-12 foundations, PTAs and booster clubs raised about $1.3 billion in 2007, according to the most recent tax filings analyzed by the Public Policy Institute of California. That's up from $70 million in 1989, according to the institute.

"There has been steady growth, and unfortunately, there is enough need to go around," said Susan Sweeney, executive director of the California Consortium of Education Foundations. She estimates there are at least 650 educational foundations in the state.

While some see opportunity with the donations, others are troubled by an increasing reliance on private donors for day-to-day operations. They also raise concerns about a growing gap between schools with well-heeled parent groups and those without.

Across the state, it's prompting districts to consider whether they ought to centralize their fundraising and distribute it more evenly among their schools. The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District made that controversial decision in November. The school board voted to pool and redistribute donations collected across the district that will be used on personnel. Gifts for supplies and other extras will stay with the original school.

Several other districts have taken similar steps, including those in Manhattan Beach and Palo Alto.

"I think we're going to see more of this," Sweeney said. "In some ways, it's a natural progression. ... There is a sense that school boards and foundations and administrations are trying to look at providing opportunities across a district. I think that that's a step forward. It's not just focused on 'my child, my classroom, my school.'"

But some foundation experts say striving for equality could hurt some schools.

"I don't feel that someone should come in and say, 'We need to take away your money and give it to someone else,'" said Jim Collogan, executive director of the National School Foundation Association. "If they want to do it on their own, that's fine. But otherwise, what they're doing is taking away parents' incentive to give."

Research on K-12 donations is limited, but some say the foundations are not creating big gaps in resources.

San Diego State University economics professor Jennifer Imazeki and her colleague analyzed private giving to California schools in 2003 and concluded that, while some schools have been effective at fundraising, most received less than $100 per student. They determined that while a fraction of small and wealthy schools raised extraordinary amounts of money and used it to pay for more computers, teachers aides and smaller class sizes, it was not causing inequality among the vast majority of students.

Imazeki said she has not analyzed more recent data, but believes the situation has not changed much.

"Anecdotally, it certainly seems like private contributions are important in some districts, but my guess is that they are still a drop in the bucket overall," she wrote in an e-mail. "It just seems like they are more important because with the budget cuts, their impact is more visible."

There are some high-profile foundations that raise millions of dollars every year through corporate sponsorship, 5K runs and the like. The Palo Alto Partners in Education foundation donated $3.4 million to the Palo Alto Unified School District last school year and is hoping to raise $3.9 million this year.

Meanwhile, many others raise less than $25,000 a year and use more traditional approaches. It's become increasingly common for parents to receive letters or e-mails asking for specific amounts to offset budget cuts. In Los Alamitos, for example, officials sent an e-mail to parents in the fall asking for a $351 donation for each child enrolled in the district to help lower class sizes.

Sweeney noted that this approach might work for some districts and not others. There is no "typical" foundation, she said. But all foundations have a universal goal of fostering relationships between schools and local neighborhoods and businesses.

"We believe foundations are there to bridge communities and schools," Sweeney said. "They are there not only for the resources, but to engage the public."

Eleanor Yang Su is an investigative reporter for California Watch, a project of the non-profit Center for Investigative reporting. Find more California Watch stories here.

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