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NYTimes Ethicist Underscores Importance of Robust Funding for ALL Public Schools

The NYTimes Magazine has a feature called “The Ethicist” that responds to ethical questions posed by readers. In this Sunday’s column a reader poses this broad question: “Should Parents Be Expected to Donate to a Public School?”. The parent posing the question has children who attend a well-funded public school in an affluent school district where the Parents Organization upped their annual appeal request from $600 to $1,000. This jump in the requested amount combined with the sense that failure to make a sizable contribution will result in some social punishment led the parent to pose the overarching question to the NYTimes ethicist, Kwame Anthony Appiah. His response is philosophically pure but politically troubling.

All children deserve a fair shot at a decent education, let’s agree. Are inequalities among schools that aren’t a result of unequal government provision a threat to this ideal? Only if inequalities between private and public schools are. So it would be wrong for parents’ groups to bolster a public school by providing resources beyond what’s available to all children in the system only if it were also wrong to send children to private schools.

You may disagree. You may think something like this: Because the school is public, it has a special duty not to compound the unequal distribution of educational advantage. (This school, with its affluent catchment area and tax base, is way ahead of the game already, you point out.) While the parents’ group is private, it’s acting in and through the public school. The result can look like philanthropy for the privileged.

This is a logically consistent response… but we are increasingly operating in a world where logic is trumped by greed. Those at the top of the economic pyramid are funding the election of individuals who place the well-being of corporations over the well-being of children and, consequently, advocate for lower taxes across the board. The results in the underfunding all schools with the realization that parents like the questioner, who reside in affluent towns, can offset the lower levels of State funding with higher property taxes and higher “voluntary contributions” from parents. In the next paragraph Mr. Appiah acknowledges the consequences of this funding mechanism, but makes a glaring mathematical error, which is highlighted in red.

I grant that there’s reason for concern here. For one thing, parents who have enriched their local school through their donations may feel less of an incentive to advocate for public education at the state level. And these parental fund-raising efforts do increase inequality (if only modestly, in relation to the some $600 billion each year that K-12 public education costs).

The error is that while the additional $600 per student raised by parents in an affluent school would have a marginal impact on the entire state, it would have a huge impact if it were available to each school in the state. Indeed, in NYC alone the legislature would need to raise an additional $660,000,000 to equal the amount the parents in the affluent district are raising if each contributed $600 for each of their students. Yet after offering this one paragraph caveat, Appiah persists in his argument that the $600 levy is ethically acceptable, because when compared to a private school like, say, Exeter Academy, they are short-changed:

Yet even affluent public schools have fewer resources than many private schools. Raising money from parents and other outside donors allows them to do a better job than they otherwise would, resulting in better educations for some children in the public system than for others. Such disparities can be mitigated; some parent-teacher associations have, commendably, adopted a sister school from a less-affluent neighborhood, for example. But inevitably, we confront a trade-off between increasing fairness and increasing the number of people who get a worthwhile good; in this case, a better education.

But Appiah concludes with the conundrum facing school boards and administrators n affluent districts when it comes to this issue: if the government officials are providing insufficient funds to ensure equitable funding can they say no to parents who want what’s best for their children?

Which returns us to the point with which I started. Certain values vary with roles: We expect an umpire to be a neutral party on the playing field, while Mom and Dad take a rooting interest in their kid. Government officials ought to be concerned with fairness and impartiality; it’s right, and inevitable, that parents, and parents’ associations, want to do the best they can for their children.

Apia’s response is ethically and philosophically sound… but it lets the government officials who clearly are NOT concerned with fairness in funding off the hook… and the more they are allowed to wiggle free from their obligation to provide fair and equitable opportunities for all children the more our economic divide will increase.

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