A Large Gift Saves One School but Highlights Dangers of Private Money in Public Systems

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May 11, 2016; National Public Radio, “nprED”

Recently, Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS), the largest district in northwest Michigan, found itself at the center of the debate when one of its elementary schools, on the brink of closure, received an anonymous and transformative donation that has since raised questions regarding the role of private money in public education.

Old Mission Peninsula School was one of three TCAPS schools facing the near end of its days due to significant cuts in the state’s education funding as a result of a decrease in student enrollment. As NPR reported last week, the school board agonized over the decision to close two other schools in similar circumstances and were just about to determine the fate of Old Mission when it received word of a $800,000 private donation to keep the school’s doors open. While the any details of any restrictions on the gift’s use have not yet been disclosed, its intent to benefit only Old Mission has caused a among school families in the area, especially those with children currently enrolled at the not so fortunate schools without a lifesaving donation. What is more, Old Mission is conveniently situated in an affluent neighborhood where a gift of that size might not be so shocking, whereas the other schools, which will eventually shut down, have less availability to such resources.

All of the above resurfaces several age-old questions within the context of nonprofit and government relations. Among those are: is philanthropy the secret solution to solving problems government cannot—or chooses not to—fix, and when charitable giving aims to save the day, is it necessarily the obligation of the donor to be “fair” in his or her giving?

Beth Gazley, professor at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs, dissected the argument for NPQ in 2015, posing the question whether “public-oriented philanthropy” is a sustainable method of funding in the provision of public services, like K-12 education. Gazley makes mention of traditional fundraising models like booster clubs and parent-teacher organizations (PTOs), commonly used to supplement the costs of educational activities, curriculum and programs. As a 2014 New York Times piece pointed out, these fundraising vehicles are typically found in wealthier districts and schools, with parents with greater access to resources leading their charge and consequently exacerbating the presence of inequity in public education. Meanwhile, others believe that private philanthropy in a public setting is much more flexible, efficient, and well intentioned than government spending.

The question of whether an anonymous donor should be able to save a public school is also a complex and interesting one. Of course a donor shouldn’t have to save a public school in the first place, as that public service is the responsibility of the service provider—the government. But if a private donor chooses to intervene and, in this case, save a public school when the government does not, should that individual be able to do so without scrutiny or question?

As TCAPS officials continue to weigh their options and determine the best way to accept and put into action Old Mission’s sizeable donation, the discussion over blurred sector lines and equitable philanthropy as it relates to education reform will undoubtedly wage on.—Lindsay Walker