The public school system is a potentially powerful engine for social mobility, equalizing opportunities for children from diverse backgrounds. Right now, the engine is sputtering. Inequalities in funding contribute to wide gaps between rich and poor in educational attainment.
Voluntary contributions by parents, which vary wildly by school, may well exacerbate the problem—as Rob Reich argued in the New York Times on Wednesday, September 4. That these payments are tax-deductible is discomforting. But Reich is tackling the problem from the wrong end. Before wading into the difficult waters of parental donations, we ought to be equalizing the tax dollars being spent directly on schools. It is the public financing of public schools that really matters, not private top-ups.
The Equity and Excellence Commission, a stellar group of scholars, reported the scale of the funding problem to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in 2012:
It is clear that students in many high-poverty districts receive less funding than those in low-poverty districts. In Illinois, for example, high-poverty districts typically spend one-third less than low-poverty districts—$8,707 per pupil as compared with $11,312 per pupil—although they serve the greatest concentrations of students with high levels of need.
On top of this, in many districts, there also exists a significant gap between the spending at low-poverty and high-poverty schools, a gap that denies equal let alone equitable resources for the students most in need. For example, a study by the Department of Education in 2011 found that more than one-third of higher-poverty schools had lower per-pupil personal expenditures than the lower-poverty schools in their districts.
The Commission recommended strong action at the Federal, State and District level to shift school financing in a more progressive direction. Right now, in too many parts of the US, the system is skewed the other way: to the rich go the spoils. It makes little sense to focus on inequalities in voluntary contributions by parents until government has got its own house in better order.