Foundation Fallacies

Discussion on the recent article PPS and the philanthro-capitalists touched on the inequities engendered by local school foundations. That discussion raised a couple common misconceptions about direct funding of schools, which I’d like to dispel.

1. “…my guess is that the [Title 1 funds] lower income schools receive equal, if not exceed, the amounts raised by foundations.”

If you browse through the school profiles published by the district, it’s easy to see where one could come up with this idea. In general, rich schools have positions funded by local school foundations (LSFs) and poor schools have Title 1 money. There are two problems with this assumption. First, it’s false. Second, even if it were true, it still wouldn’t be equitable.

Looking at dollars-per-student added to school budgets last school year from Title 1, Local school foundations (LSFs) and PTAs, eight of the top 10 schools in per-student additions are non-Title 1 schools: Abernathy, Chapman, Ainsworth, Forest Park, Irvington, Duniway, West Sylvan, Rieke and Stephenson. These schools raised between $273.60 (Stephenson) and $570.03 (Abernathy) per student.

Madison High, with over 65 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced-price meals got no Title 1 money. Benson High, with over 58 percent free and reduced, also got no Title 1 money.

One more example: Ockley Green K-8, with nearly 3 out of 4 students in poverty and 8 out of 10 non-white, got $189.84 per student in Title 1 money, while Ainsworth K-5, with less than six percent on free and reduced lunch and 80 percent white, added over $400 per student. Ainsworth’s teaching staff was increased nearly 33 percent through direct funding by parents.

More importantly, the idea that foundation money would simply supplant Title 1 money is misguided. Title 1 money is provided by the federal government to help ameliorate the problems associated with poverty, and there are very specific guidelines for its use. While foundation dollars reduce class sizes and preserve “enrichments” like certified art and music teachers and advanced college placement programs, Title 1 money is almost entirely spent on academic support (resource rooms, reading teachers, etc.) to help bring disadvantaged students up to grade level .

Even if Title 1 provided the exact same amount of money per student at poor schools as LSF money provides at rich schools, it still wouldn’t be nearly enough to overcome the disadvantages students affected by poverty must overcome, much less be equitable in terms of the kinds of programs schools can afford to provide their students.

2. “…one third of all funds raised goes directly to the Portland Schools Foundation, an umbrella organization that provides grants to close achievement gaps between students throughout the school district. One third to employ educators, a third to enrich our kids and a third to help others. Sounds fair to me.”

When you put it that way, it almost does sound fair. Almost. But there’s a problem with the assumption, and with the math.

First, until this school year, no money from the Portland Schools Foundation’s “Equity Fund” ever paid for a single teaching position at any school. This year, under the leadership of Dan Ryan, schools were finally allowed to spend this money on teaching positions; eight schools were awarded between $20,000 and $55,000. That’s a handful of full-time-equivalent teaching positions for the entire district.

For comparison, in one school year the LSFs at Lincoln High, West Sylvan Middle,  Ainsworth Elementary, Forest Park Elementary, Duniway Elementary and Bridlemile Elementary raised $224,680, $198,878, $193,766, $156,684, $113,187 and $110,005 respectively.

The problem with the math of thirds cited here is that only money used to pay for certified teachers is subject to the Equity Fund contributions, and the first $10,000 is exempt. So, for example, let’s say a school raises $150,000 at their auction, and decides to put $50,000 toward a teaching position. They’ll spend the rest on classroom aides, computers, books for the library, classroom supplies, and an after-school arts program, all of which is fully exempt from Equity Fund contributions.

For the teacher they hire, after the $10,000 exemption, they would tithe 30 percent of $40,000, or $12,000, to the Equity Fund. That’s eight percent of their total funds raised, not a third.

To be clear, nobody should be discouraged from supporting their kids’ school. But the system we have today is grossly unfair. Local school foundations have allowed wealthy neighborhoods to preserve pretty decent “public” schools while the rest of the district fights over crumbs. Dan Ryan is doing what he can to make the system more fair; allowing Equity Fund dollars to pay for teachers was an important first step in that direction.

While I appreciate Ryan’s good work and intentions, I advocate for the abolition of LSFs. Wealthy donors should be encouraged to donate to the district’s general fund and advocate for real, progressive tax reform, so that we can eliminate our two-tiered school system and all students can have access to a comprehensive education.

Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.