Funding in the Public Schools: Private versus Public by Quinn Jackson

Public schools are privately funded every day. Occasionally, these funds come from highly publicized celebrity donations such as Taylor Swift’s $50,000 to NYC Public Schools and Chance the Rapper’s $3 million to Chicago Public Schools. But, more frequently, private funding for public schools comes from high profile companies and organizations as well as parents that are daily supporting and bettering New York City public schools.

Currently, there are two main ways to privately fund New York City Public Schools:

  1. Local School PTAs
    1. Local Parent Teacher Association or Parent Teacher Student Associations are organizations intended to facilitate communication between parents and the school staff. Increasingly, however, PTAs have become the primary facilitators of individual school fundraising.
  • Private-Public Partnerships – Fund for Public Schools
    • The Fund for Public Schools acts as a partner of the NYC Department of Education (DOE). The DOE uses the Fund to bridge private philanthropic groups and individual donors. The website shows the impact of this partnership by noting that it has raised “$440 million for the city’s 1,800 public schools and 1.1 million students” to date. The Fund allows donors to designate whether or not they want their money to go to a general pool or to a specific school or project. The Fund for Public Schools has forged partnerships with successful initiatives such as the GE Foundation, the Gates Foundation, and Bloomberg Philanthropy.

Presumably, such private donations would be effective enough to alleviate the existing inequalities in New York City public schools. Despite these increased initiatives for private-public donations and partnerships, however, inequalities between New York City schools have continually grown since the late 1990s and have particularly affected the education of our Black and LatinX students.

The existing inequality of such funding causes a few pressing questions to arise. How does the private funding of public schools perpetuate inequality between poor schools (predominantly minority schools) and wealthy schools (predominantly white schools)? Are there ethical concerns surrounding such private funding? And, considering the fact that private funding has furthered neoliberal practices within the city and the state, whose responsibility is it to equitably fund New York City public schools?

Discussed often in education and neoliberal critiques, a “Shadow State”– large private groups and wealthy individuals impacting social and political movements— has become increasingly more present in the New York City educational system. We can see this through partnerships that The Fund and the DOE forge with large family foundations or private businesses such as AirBnB and its Computer Science for All  initiative which provides “hands-on computer science and math classes to make [students] job ready on day one.” Or we can see how private PTA fundraisers are bringing in millions of dollars for their individual schools and shaping their internal education resources.

It troubles me that the government is not fully investing into its own educational systems. Unhealthily relying on private philanthropic efforts to expand our education system is dangerous because it creates a new form of non-elected governance. More specifically, it encourages the wealthy to maintain a sense of governance and control. A democratic vote by the majority does not determine who controls these funds which further illustrates the motivations behind these wealthy individuals donating. Donors should have the freedom to spend and donate their money where they see fit. If a parent at a wealthy school desires to invest thousands of dollars into their child’s school, they have the right. When these additional funds, however, come at the expense of furthering the resources between the poorest and richest of schools within the same district boundaries need to be determined which will limit this inequality.

Despite these concern, private funding is not a negative contributor to the furthering of public education. In fact, many programs would not be possible without the resources of external capital. In a blog from January 2018 speaking on the 2016-2017 Arts in School Report conducted under the DOE, the Fund for Public School states that they are “particularly proud to have contributed to the wide-spread success of the many arts programs across the city funded by private support.” Without outside funding, expanded arts programing in schools would not be a possibility. Yet, this statement highlights the tricky balance that exists. School funding is not just about the per student spending and teacher salary. School funding is about resources, classroom supplies, media centers, playgrounds—the whole experience a child may have in school. Without these external funds from parents and organizations, specific programing and opportunities, like increased arts education, would not be possible. But it is important to make sure that as private funding is entering the public sphere, it is equally benefiting every school in the New York City system rather than a select few. While some may argue that an increase of taxes would allow for more funding to go to schools, this would not limit private funding initiatives and, instead, would hurt the parents of the under resourced schools significantly. Through their gifts, private and individual supporters have the power to shape the educational terrain of public schools and the central force, the DOE, must work to neutralize any discrepancies.

I personally cannot find a valid justification morally, economically, or politically for the discrepancies of children’s education to be exacerbated by private funding. My proposed solution is to set a fundraising cap for individual schools that takes into account monetary as well as in-kind donations. Ideally, once this cap is reached, parents, PTAs, and private organizations can still fundraise, but the excess funds would go towards supporting the larger New York City Public School system. This allows more parents to directly fund and support their child’s school while still supporting the entire New York Public School system. While I do not have a hard donation cap in mind, we need to keep public schools equitable by restricting and redirecting incoming funds to universally benefit every schools.