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another factor contributing to unequal spending on education – and the inability of California’s dramatic reform of its outdated and inequitable school system to address them.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.