01 June 2012

Local Education Foundations

The Atlantic | Laura McKenna | How Good Parents and Good Intentions Lead to Dramatically Unequal Schools

Local education foundations (LEF) are 503(c)(3) groups formed in local school districts. They usually provide funding for auxiliary educational activities or after school activities, like Lego Leagues, music programs, or special field trips. Unlike PTA groups, they tend to focus on gathering large scale donations from local businesses or corporations.

There are wide variations in how much these groups can collect based on the wealth of the community. [...]

In Slate magazine in November, Helaine Olen described the impact of wealthy school foundations in California.
One elementary school is so adept at getting its wealthy parents to open their checkbooks that it is able to spend an additional $2,000 per student on enrichment activities, which include employing multiple reading and instructional assistants, as well as classes in chorale music, marine science, and art. But at another Santa Monica-Malibu Unified school, located just a few miles away, a significant percentage of the kids come from economically disadvantaged homes and the local PTA can't even muster up an additional $100 per child, leaving the students to make do with a truncated music program, a few art classes, and one measly instructional assistant.
I think there are two mutually exclusive ways to look at the justice of situations like this one. Option 1: LEFs are Pareto improvements. Some children are made better off, other stay the same. This is good. Option 2: the children who are already better off get further improvements, increasing inequality. This is bad.

I wish there were handy labels for people whose primary concern is the relative size of the pie slices and those whose concern is the size of the pie. That's a much more useful spectrum to discuss politics than left/right.
Reich also writes that individuals and business who donate to these foundations receive tax breaks. In other words, government is subsidizing foundations that channel money to wealthy school districts. The poor school districts that are unable to create these foundations receive nothing. Ultimately, charitable donations are not going to areas where it is needed most.
Well yes, but that's true of all sorts of donations. Museum patrons are of above-average wealth, as are familes who send children to college. Is allowing tax deductions for contributions to these institutions a "subsidy for the wealthy"?

Maybe your answer is "yes." That's fine. So long as your answer accords with how you would answer that question w.r.t. LEFs.

(I'm actually pretty open to the idea of ending tax deductions for charitable donations. I just want to do it consistently rather than drawing up an ad hoc list of "bad," unpopular charities like LEFs that don't deserve that tax treatment.

Okay I didn't intend to get into a digression about this, but I can't help justifying my position here since I think I said the opposite on this blog some years back. The short answer is that some portion of donations are actually consumption in another form. Furthermore I don't think non-profit status lends any kind of moral difference from any other organization. (They can have lots of profits, they just have to spend them.)

In recognition that some non-zero portion of contributions is concealed consumption, perhaps a compromise whereby donations of $X lowers your taxable income $0.5X is appropriate.)


Also, shouldn't we be happy that LEFs target corporate donors rather than local residents? I imagine it's much easier to get the car dealership to contribute to schools in the poorer neighborhood than it is not get rich citizens to contribute to a school on the wrong side of town.


PS "Dramatically Unequal Schools"? Let's say the typical LEF in a rich neighborhood comes up with $1000 per student, and the typical school district spending per pupil is $12500. Let's further make the very unlikely supposition that there is no other transfer from richer to poorer students' families, i.e. there is no progressive taxation in the district, the poorer school gets no grants the richer school does not, the booster club at the richer school does not contribute to a district-wide fund, etc. In that case the LEF would make spending at the richer school a dramatic eight percent higher. Eight percent's not nothing. I sure could use an 8% revenue boost in my budget. But seeing as how educational outcome is almost entirely unresponsive to orders-of-magnitude increases in spending, is 8% really that dramatic? (See also: "GDP Yield Per Dollar in Education Spending.")

Remember, spending isn't the point. Increasing knowledge and intelligence is the point. Spending is just what's convenient to measure.

Speaking of which, an extra $1000 contribution from Mr and Mrs Moneypants to their LEF appears to increase inequality by $1000. But this is only the case if none of that money would have been spent on their children had the LEF not existed. If they give the school a hunk of money for after-hours language program that shows up in the statistics as an increased expenditure in the rich neighborhood. But if they instead spend that money on a tutor for their child that will never show up in the numbers, making the distribution appear to be more even despite the opposite being the case.


PPS
A nearby town with an average income of $45,000 does not have a foundation, but it could use one to provide basic necessities for the school like textbooks and classroom supplies.
I'm really tired of the "they can't even afford textbooks!" cry. That's only going to sway me if you can also demonstrate that there isn't any fat anywhere else in the system. You want books? Fire a supernumerary vice principal. Fire the director of sustainability programs. Stop spending half a million on new furntiture for the headquarters building. (*AHEM* Baltimore!) Then you can buy literally truckloads of books.

The "we can't afford books" thing is the school equivalent of the way the parks service threatens to close the Washington Monument whenever they don't get the budget they want. They try to frame the debate as as dichotomy between getting all the funding they want and making the most dramatic, visible cut possible. Not the most reasonable cut or the most efficient cut or a cut to the program with the lowest benefit-cost ratio or the one furthest from meetings its objectives. It's always the cut which is most likely to draw public outrage or sympathy.

(Is there a name for this maneuver? I feel like there is but I can't for the life of me figure it out.)

3 comments:

  1. This is, in fact, the Washington Monument defense.

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  2. Hello,

    I find your blog interesting and stimulating.

    A sentence from your post of 22 June 2012 is being used as an example in a discussion of English grammar on a Chinese bulletin board. I wonder if I can ask you about the meaning of the sentence.

    You wrote, "I want a President whose job is to keep the machine of State in fine whack." Especially in view of the next sentence, "I'm comfortable with a POTUS who falls back on 'the forms must be obeyed' because I think his sole role is to do so," I read the first sentence as saying that you want a President whose main or only job is to keep the machine running smoothly. Can you confirm that my reading is what you intended, that the words "whose job is" (as opposed to, say, "whose job it is") carry the "main or only" implication, however slight? In other words, the expression "the President's job is to do X" implies that X is his main or only job, while the expression "it is the President's job to do X" does not. (Some participants in the discussion argue that there is no such implication at all, so that the two expressions above are equivalent and therefore interchangeable.)

    Thanks for any help you can give here. Your answer will help many Chinese students of English understand a nuance that is not well covered in school or in grammar texts.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks for the question.

    For the record, you're referring to this post: On "let there be (some) amnesty"

    By "I want a President whose job is to keep the machine of State in fine whack" I meant that that should be his principal concern. Perhaps not his exclusive duty, but his main one. I am not sure if my usage is 100% correct, but that was my intention.

    In general if I were to read "it is the President's job to do X" I would think that X is one of potentially many things. We agree there. However I think "the President's job is to do X" could go either way depending on context. My first reading would be the one I gave above, and the one you give: X is the main component of the job. I don't think that wording rules out X being one of many things though. The rest of the text would have to be considered.

    Thanks again and good luck with the grammar discussions. I find it hard enough to reach a consensus about English usage even when speaking in English!

    ReplyDelete