Home > Uncategorized > In Age of Austerity Funding, Foundations in Affluent Districts Offset State Cuts, Perpetuate and Exacerbate Inequality

In Age of Austerity Funding, Foundations in Affluent Districts Offset State Cuts, Perpetuate and Exacerbate Inequality

Writing in Re-Thinking Schools, Ursula Wolff-Rocca describes how she came to realize that her externally funded teaching position in Lake Oswego schools was part of a corrupt system funding system that reduced opportunities for children raised in poverty while affording affluent districts like hers the chance to provide a robust education. You see, Ms. Wolff-Rocca’s classroom initial teaching position was funded by a “foundation” whose funds come from local residents in Lake Oswego who provide $650 on average to, in the words of their website, ” Keep Lake Oswego Schools on Top of the Curve”. As Ms. Wolff-Rocca notes, this scheme of de facto user fees keeps the taxes low for everyone in her town and in the State in general, but in doing so perpetuates gross inequities in public school funding. How so? Ms. Wolff-Rocca provides a good overview of how this all works for the affluent and penalizes those in poverty:

Anyone in education or interested in education policy has heard the claim “You can’t fix what’s wrong in education by throwing money at the problem.” Indeed, claims like this are made every legislative cycle as lawmakers wrangle over how much to budget for K–12 education and again during campaign season, when too many candidates jump on some version of the tax-cutting bandwagon.

But if more money is not a critical requirement for improving education, why have school foundations become so ubiquitous? According to Ashlyn Aiko Nelson and Beth Gazley, who published an investigation of these school funding nonprofits, school foundations have proliferated in the last decades, increasing threefold since the mid-1990s. So has the amount of money they are raising: School foundations and comparable organizations raised about $197 million in 1995; in 2010, the number had more than quadrupled to $880 million.

The Lake Oswego Schools Foundation raised roughly $1.5 million for the 2014–15 school year, with 31 families donating more than $5,000 apiece; almost 100 families donated more than $2,500 and triple that number donated at least $1,250. All said, the average family contribution was $650. These dollars matter in the halls of the schools in my district. Last year, $1.5 million meant 16 additional teachers, smaller class sizes, and additional elective offerings.

What is behind the increasing role of school foundations like the one in my district? In our state, like many others, foundations have been a way of addressing the budgetary limitations caused by the passage of property tax caps—here in Oregon, the property tax limitation, Measure 5, passed in 1990—and changes to education funding formulas. The property tax caps were the work of anti-tax activists; the changes to school funding were the work of those concerned about inequality. Together, these changes have given rise to a system that leaves most schools underfunded (as property tax caps limit revenue), with some schools, particularly in the rural parts of the state, faring better than before (because of the equalization funding formula). Wealthy districts, like mine, saw a net loss in funding with equalization.

In the old system, districts received roughly 60 percent of their funding from local property taxes; in the new system, almost all education taxes go into the general fund, to be allocated relatively equitably, on a per-pupil basis. For a wealthy city like Lake Oswego, property tax caps meant less revenue; and funding equalization meant a smaller piece of the pie.

Lake Oswego and other affluent districts can offset this loss in funds by turning to affluent residents. But that could have a downside:

One danger of school foundations in wealthy cities and neighborhoods like Lake Oswego is that they, too, could exercise outsized influence over policy, shaping the choices of the school board through the seductive influence of scarce dollars. When vital school services—not just “enrichment” activities, but teachers and books—are paid for with foundation dollars, what school board could resist the will of the largest donors, who give in excess of $10,000 year after year?

Ms. Wolff-Rocca acknowledges that thus far her district has not been subject to donors imposing their will on the district, but notes that Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation HAS imposed its will on the entire nation… and while she clearly appreciates the work of the foundation in her district, she sees the bigger picture:

But school foundations that rely on the individual wealth of a district’s residents to provide basic components of a sound education make a mockery of the progressive premise of public education as a public good that should be provided to all. They turn education into just another commodity that can be hoarded by the wealthy to the detriment of everyone else. They dangerously misshape the already-problematic metrics of accountability—where test scores and graduation rates are compared across districts—by obscuring yet one more example of how our society asks poor children to do more with less.

Foundations work for the affluent: they provide a high quality education for the children, keep the housing values in the community high and the taxes low, and in that way do no harm to the children growing up in that town. The “other children”, though, suffer…. and throwing money at their schools is wasteful. The hypocrisy of this funding model is self-evident but somehow the underfunded “government schools” have been cast as the villains in this narrative. Here’s hoping that articles like Ms. Wolff-Rocca’s can get people to see through the scam that is going on.

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