It has been observed that forays into public education finance resemble Russian novels-“long, tedious, and everybody dies in the end.” On any given day, dozens of news stories describe schools nationwide struggling to make ends meet. And, just as “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” each underfunded school is underfunded in its own complicated way. Funding for public education comes from many places, chief among them local property taxes, at least historically. States-which bear primary responsibility for administering their education systems-and private litigants have struggled for over sixty years to produce funding formulas that weaken the link between a community’s wealth, as measured by property taxes, and the quality of its education.
Alongside that trend to develop more equitable public funding, another trend began to emerge, in the form of increased public school reliance on sophisticated private fundraising organizations. Studies show that these organizations are unequally distributed along socioeconomic lines, leading many to conclude that they foster exactly the sort of inequitable public school resources that states have been trying to stifle. Although there is not enough data to claim that this disrupts equitable funding efforts statewide or nationwide, these organizations continue to grow rapidly, and the existing anecdotal evidence of neighboring schools with dramatically different resources is troubling. Calls to prohibit such private donations are also troubling, however, as these donations are well intended and provide schools with necessary resources and community support.
Currently, no state-level regulations exist to provide guidance for how private donations might equitably exist within a publicly funded school system. This Note argues that it is time for state legislators to break this silence and proactively determine a statewide protocol for private donations that comports with their state’s mission to provide a high quality public education to children from all socioeconomic backgrounds. In doing so, this Note emphasizes that it is critical to avoid characterizing private donations as inherently good or inherently bad because solutions permitting unlimited private donations are as undesirable as solutions that completely eliminate them. State legislators are equipped to find an appropriate point on that spectrum, one which protects the valuable goal of providing public education to all children equitably but does not discourage the valuable benefits of local community support for public education.
Abigail Margaret Frisch, The Class is Greener on the Other Side: How Private Donations to Public Schools Play into Fair Funding, 67 Duke L.J. 427 (2017)
Available at: https://scholarship.law.duke.edu/dlj/vol67/iss2/4