Why charitable donations to public schools are OK

By Felix Salmon
September 6, 2013
Rob Reich is worried about school inequality.

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Rob Reich is worried about school inequality. (Longer, more fun version here.) When it comes to education, as in so many other fields, the rich just get richer, leaving everybody else behind. His Exhibit A: the parents of wealthy Hillsborough, California, who between them donate some $2,300 per child per year — all of it fully tax-deductible — to supplement the money coming from the state. This, says Reich, is not what charitable deductions are for:

Wanting to support your own children’s education is understandable, but it also has unintended, pernicious effects… charity like this is not relief for the poor. It is, in fact, the opposite. Private giving to public schools widens the gap between rich and poor. It exacerbates inequalities in financing. It is philanthropy in the service of conferring advantage on the already well-off… Tax policy makes federal and state governments complicit in the deepening of existing inequalities that they are ostensibly responsible for diminishing in the first place.

On the one hand, I should really agree with Reich here. After all, I spent 1,500 words last year railing against the private-school equivalent of these donations: the charitable top-ups that parents get arm-twisted into paying to educate their own kids. But in fact, partly because of that post, I actually quite like what’s happening in California.

For one thing, we’re seeing some real community spirit here: the parents of Hillsborough are supporting the entire school district with their donations, rather than just their own kids’ specific schools. As a result, their donations are improving the lot of every child in their district. True, most of those kids, as Reich says, are “already well-off”. But the quality of education in aggregate is improved, and while inequality might be exacerbated between communities, it isn’t exacerbated within communities, which is what results when the richest members of society decide to take their kids out of the public school system entirely.

The parents of Hillsborough have come to a collective realization: if they club together to make their public schools excellent, then none of them need to think about sending their kids to private school. An annual donation of $2,300 is peanuts compared to even the cheapest private-school tuition — and can result in a better education, too. (I can tell you first-hand that Palo Alto’s public schools are better than a certain expensive private school in London.)

As Richard Reeves says, the job of redistribution rightly belongs to the government, not to individual charitable donors. The state of California should take some of the money currently being spent in Hillsborough, and spend it instead in East Palo Alto, where it’s needed much more urgently. At the margin, private cashflows in Hillsborough should just make such redistribution easier, rather than harder. California, even more than most states, is suffering from enormous budget cutbacks; if there are thousands of parents around the state who are willing and able to augment current education funding, that’s a gift horse which I don’t think needs a huge amount of dental examination.

As Reich himself says, “when it comes to addressing the root cause of inequality in public education in the United States, the solution will have little or nothing to do with philanthropy”. It stands to reason, then, that philanthropy is not the problem here either. I do worry about the rise of what I call “transactional philanthropy” — the quid-pro-quo model where you give money to a philanthropy just because you get something back in return. (A tote bag, your name on a building, a better education for your child.) But I’m also drawn to the deeper idea of what’s going on here.

We all pay for public education, because it’s a public good. Private education, meanwhile, is a private good, which is rightly paid for with after-tax income. California is now developing an intermediate model — what the Hillsborough Schools Foundation likes to call “a groundbreaking public-private partnership to support our schools”. I’d like to think that the the intermediate model, at the margin, might slowly replace the old binary model, and result in wealthy parents being more involved in their local public schools, and less likely to opt out entirely by sending their kids to private school. And that, in turn, would be good for everybody.

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