What’s Wrong With Private Funding for Public Schools?

What’s Wrong With Private Funding for Public Schools?

In 1998, Diane Mancus was principal of Houston’s Ser Niños Elementary School, located in a poor neighborhood a few miles from Rice School, a K-8 institution smack in the center of one of the city’s wealthiest enclaves. Mancus remembers the day in March when both schools staged fundraisers. Rice held an auction, at which one parent bid $20,000 for a reserved parking space in front of the school so that he could drop his child off at the last minute. Others bid large sums to enable their sons and daughters to spend a day with the principal or to go on a weekend camping trip with the school’s teachers. Ser Niños, by contrast, opted for a garage sale that raised forty-four dollars. Unfortunately, Mancus recalls, the event ended on a sour note when “several parents who worked the sale complained that others were taking some of the items home with them.”

The contrast between Rice and Ser Niños is evocative for many reasons—not the least being the way in which Ser Niños’s garage sale turned into a form of personal charity for the poverty-stricken parents, not just for the school itself, while Rice auctioned off parts of the school itself—teachers’ time, principal’s time—and not just, as is often the case, football tickets or computers donated by wealthy parents. But at the heart of Mancus’s recollection is a story that is repeating itself in countless American communities: the growing willingness and capacity of parents to contribute private funds to their children’s public school, thus introducing a new magnitude of inequality into the public system. As the title of a recent Time magazine article on the subject suggested—and as the amounts raised at the Rice auction confirm—we have moved “Beyond Bake Sales.” Or, as Lydia Moss, principal of the District of Columbia’s Clark Elementary, puts it, when wealthy parents contribute private funds to top up the public school budget, they are “getting a private school education for their kids on the public nickel.”

That description, “a private school education on the public nickel,” almost makes it sound as if we are talking about vouchers. But in fact the idea behind vouchers is the opposite. With vouchers—which, despite all the national controversy they’ve sparked, are actually on the agenda in only a handful of jurisdictions—parents use public funds to purchase services from the private schools their children attend. What Mancus describes is the reverse: parents using private resources to purchase services for the public schools their children attend. Although it has received much less national attention than vouchers, it provokes fierce equity debates at the local level across the country.

In a larger sense, though, the growing tendency for parents to fund public schools privately and the movement to get government to fund private schools publicly are of a piece. It is no accident that act60.org—a Vermont Web site devoted t...

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