Inequities likely to continue in wealthy districts despite school finance reforms

The opinion piece in today’s New York Times on tax-deductible donations by affluent parents to schools in wealthy communities points to yet another factor contributing to unequal spending on education – and the inability of California’s dramatic reform of its outdated and inequitable school system to address them.

The article by Stanford University professor Rob Reich describes the large contributions parents are expected to make in communities within striking distance of his university, including in Palo Alto itself. According to Reich, the Palo Alto Unified School District asks parents to make an annual donation of $800 per child, and in Menlo Park $1,500. At Ross Elementary in Marin County, parents are expected to contribute $3,400 per child. Those contributions are just a fraction of what parents would have to pay if they sent their children to private schools, but they are probably beyond what the average parent in California could afford.

These contributions are not the norm in California, and certainly not in the state’s largest school districts serving the majority of California’s 6.2 million public school students. But they have helped create a two-tier education system – one in which affluent parents can help their schools weather state budget crises and maintain programs less affluent districts can only dream about. As Reich notes, “It is philanthropy in the service of conferring advantage of the already well-off.”

Reich suggests that some of the money donated by wealthy parents should be channelled to poorer school districts. That seems like an unimaginable prospect, a Utopian dream in which the rich share their wealth with the poor, potentially at the expense of their children’s own education.

He also suggests that Congress should revise the tax code so that charitable contributions made by parents in poorer districts would yield a larger tax deduction. The odds of Congress doing anything remotely like that seems similarly unrealistic. Congress has a well-established track record – going back decades – of approving legislation designed to benefit the wealthiest of Americans, not the poorest. That reality helps explain the vast increases in income inequality that we have witnessed in recent decades.

The flow of private donations to largely small districts serving wealthy parents will continue despite the implementation of the Local Control Funding Formula championed by Gov. Jerry Brown and approved by the Legislature in June.

This fact underscores a weakness – perhaps an unavoidable one – in the new formula. It does not address non-state sources of revenues, virtually guaranteeing that some of the inequities in spending that currently exist will continue. Funding differences are also the result of whether a district is able to approve a parcel tax – which requires approval by two-thirds of the voters in a local election. The 108 districts that have parcel taxes tend to be wealthier ones, and as a recent EdSource noted, nearly half of them (53 to be exact) are located in the three counties where the districts cited in the New York Times article are located.

Last year, Hillsborough spent $13,507 on each of its students, compared to the state average of $8,382. Palo Alto spent $13,40, and Ross Elementary a whopping $17,020.  (These figures refer to what the state calls the “current expense of education” per student in these districts.  The state’s new funding formula will likely help to reduce the magnitude of these inequities by funneling additional funds to schools with high concentrations of low-income students. But significant inequities will still remain.

Thus Reich’s piece is a timely warning that while California’s new Local Control Funding Formula will make a difference in reducing some inequities, it will not erase all of them. It should not come as surprise  that even after the extraordinarily ambitious school finance reform legislation is fully implemented, in some – and perhaps even in many – districts the quality of a student’s education will still be dependent on where a child is born, and on the wealth of his or her parents.

Filed under: Reforms, School Finance


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9 Responses to “Inequities likely to continue in wealthy districts despite school finance reforms”

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  1. Lesli on Sep 6, 2013 at 2:43 pm09/6/2013 2:43 pm

    • 000

    The residents in the more affluent districts are the ones paying the new taxes and the majority of the money is not going to their schools and districts. We are seeing districts who already receive significant Title 1 funding over the base funding level now receiving thousands of dollars more per student with LCFF. A majority of the more affluent districts are receiving thousands less per student and many cannot make up the difference in donations. Our districts are still reeling from the cuts over the past several years. With LCFF it will take until 2020 to get back to the funding level of 2007. The more affluent and high achieving districts are also the one who generally do not qualify for grants. As far as parcel taxes, yes my district has a $98 a parcel tax which equates to $2.3 million a year. This equals $200 per pupil and is no where near the thousands of dollars many districts are receiving in the LCFF. It is impossible to make up the difference in LCFF funding with a parcel tax. Neighboring districts are receiving $2,000-3,000 per student in LCFF $. EL and poor students need extra resources but LCFF is highly flawed.


    • el on Sep 6, 2013 at 3:08 pm09/6/2013 3:08 pm

      • 000

      Certainly I think it is important that the base funding for every child be sufficient for a basic education, and I have argued that here many times.

      However, I will also say that if you think those neighboring districts are getting an awesome deal and thus delivering better education with their extra couple of thousand that comes for their disadvantaged students, most likely you have the ability to enroll your child there via interdistrict transfer even if you don’t want to actively move your residence into that district.

      • Lesli on Sep 6, 2013 at 3:18 pm09/6/2013 3:18 pm

        • 000

        The neighboring districts offer excellent programs. Every school and district has their unique challenges. Special Education populations are another area where additional resources could greatly benefit students and sadly are not part of LCFF. It will be interesting to see how successful LCFF turns out to be.

    • Manuel on Sep 6, 2013 at 4:56 pm09/6/2013 4:56 pm

      • 000

      From what I’ve seen, the Supplemental and Concentration grants are just a mirage. This is because the “Advance Apportionment” given to districts does not include any of these “funds for the poor.” (Don’t believe me? Go take a look at it at this CDE web page.) Why? Because the money is not there. Or it is sitting somewhere else. Ah, but the media is making hay of what they are supposed to receive all without one scintilla of evidence that this money has actually been remitted to the districts! And districts are not being transparent about it either!

      What this is fueling, IMO, is just plain class warfare. And it won’t get better anytime soon.

    • navigio on Sep 6, 2013 at 5:18 pm09/6/2013 5:18 pm

      • 000

      I am interesting to know what you feel would be ‘fair’. Should the overall funding be equal, ie state only makes up for differential between parcel tax and fed funding, for example? You mention el and poor students need extra resources. what kinds of resources, and at what cost do you think? Im not trying to bait you, I’m really interested. I believe LCFF is a bet made under the understanding that there is a point up to which affluent families will go before they leave the public system. The numbers were already massaged once under the assumption that they were perhaps too much to bear. Education is very much like an arms race. In the past, every effort to increase resources for lower income students has been met with an increase in spending by affluents (and effectiveness for each dollar–see old top ed source) that has out-done what the state has tried to do. I have even seen districts where non title 1 schools have been provided ‘extra’ money in order to try to make the difference more equal. Seems to defeat the purpose, to be honest. There is a spreadsheet somewhere with actual allocations for next year and at full implementation by school. The earlier ones have shown that even though there can be a theoretical large difference, that worse-case scenario is not the norm. its also important to remember there is a hold harmless in lcff. as a result, in the first few years–when it is barely funded–most of the schools getting excessive amounts are not even high-needs schools.

  2. el on Sep 6, 2013 at 9:32 am09/6/2013 9:32 am

    • 000

    I don’t have a solution, but I’ll add a data point which is that our (Title 1) elementary school would consider a fundraiser that generated $2000 for the entire school for the year wildly successful. The idea that there are schools that can generate contributions that size per student is jaw-dropping to me.

  3. navigio on Sep 6, 2013 at 9:04 am09/6/2013 9:04 am

    • 000

    . In the affluent community I teach, we’re lucky we do have wonderful parents who support our school.

    That is an important point. The idea that state or federal funding is all a school gets is wrong. I’d be interested in knowing what school gets $1500/student. Although your point is generally correct, I’ve never seen a per student funding level that low.

  4. Elaine on Sep 6, 2013 at 6:53 am09/6/2013 6:53 am

    • 000

    While I respect Mr.Freedberg’s opinion, I disagree. Here in San Diego, those “poorer” schools continue to get the majority of state money while the schools in the “affluent” communities are left with next to nothing when it comes to support. The schools closest to the border, and those with a large number of title 1 students get THOUSANDS and THOUSANDS of dollars not just from the state but from various other funds. The amount can range to well over $10,000 a student, while the schools for students in an affluent community get $1500 per student OR LESS depending on the school size. In the affluent community I teach, we’re lucky we do have wonderful parents who support our school. With classes sizes at a minimum of 35, the parent’s support helps us keep supplies and other necessities that there is NO MONEY for. The allocation of funds per student is determined by our school board and they’ve decided we just don’t need as much. Trust me, the “poor schools” are not!


    • Manuel on Sep 6, 2013 at 2:38 pm09/6/2013 2:38 pm

      • 000

      I hope that you don’t think I am saying that you are lying but I think that you misinformed (or maybe I can’t extrapolate). LAUSD currently gets $307 million in Title I, Part A, but about 30% is eaten away by the usual WFA, excuse me, mandatory set-asides. The number of Title I kids is about 75% which works out to roughly 400,000 kids. That works out to about $500/kid if they were to distribute it equally, which they don’t.

      Then there is Title III, which comes to about $48 million, and is supposed to go to English learners. I think that about 40% of LAUSD kids are ELs, so that comes to about $220/kid. So federal aid is not THOUSANDS and THOUSANDS of dollars.

      Neither is state aid, which comes to about $180 million, almost 2/3 as much as fed aid.

      Assuming that SDUSD gets about the same proportionate funding, I don’t see how you could make the claim that poor schools got THOUSANDS and THOUSANDS of dollars while you “poor” affluent community gets nothing. Is your belief supported by the school and district budgets?

      OTOH, small amounts can add up to thousands of dollars for the entire school and that’s where the rub comes. If you are referring to the total allocation for a poor school, of course it is thousands and thousands for a school with mostly poor kids.

      That happens at LAUSD too: poor schools get Title I money but those with less than 50% poor kids get none. The rub is that the affluent schools can get substantial contributions from parents (there is one particular elementary school that gets around $1 million extra a year, all perfectly legal) while those in most middle class areas can’t raise even $20,000 a year.

      This is very very damaging for the middle class because they vote while the poor don’t. Expect more problems once people realize that Prop 30 did not solve much.

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