Doc Searls from Santa Barbara, USA [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

April 29, 2019; San Luis Obispo Tribune

Public schools rely on a fickle source to pay their bills—property taxes. When property values decline, so does locally generated revenue, leaving school leaders to figure out how to adjust. In economically struggling communities, districts are often forced to either cut back educational programs to reduce expenses or lobby their states to pay more of their bills. In some districts, though, there’s another, growing option, as NPQ has recognized: they can turn to philanthropy as a source of ongoing financial support. This can come at a price.

The impending closure of a nuclear power plant threatens California’s San Luis Coastal Unified School District. Losing the property tax payments from the Diablo Canyon plant will reduce the district’s annual budget by almost 10 percent. Rather than trim expenses, the district supported the formation of the San Luis Coastal Educational Foundation to help make up the difference. According to the San Luis Obispo Tribune, the Foundation will seek to “fill gaps in technology, innovation, and student equity and achievement—and it will help make up for significant budget cuts.”

The new foundation was launched with an initial $10 million grant that was part of the state’s closure mitigation plan and aims to raise additional funds to create a permanent endowment that can provide a continuing income stream for the district.

School district and community leaders are positioning the foundation to effectively coordinate with the district’s directives and enrich and augment the district’s budget, rather than have it assume responsibility for core expenses. According to the district’s superintendent, Eric Prater, “The foundation should not get into the business of hiring teachers as this would make for an uncertain funding model post the Diablo closure.” Rather, the foundation can serve as “the district’s innovation arm…to foster a collaborative community of learning in which the best ideas are surfaced, supported, and shared…working to elevate all students and prepare them to compete in a rapidly changing and dynamic world.”

Executive director Christine Robertson told the Tribune that the Foundation was a creative way to deal with emerging realities. “Things are changing, and we need to adapt now, so we don’t have to go into crisis mode later and make negative and draconian cuts to our schools. We have the opportunity to do something really innovative.”

When the philanthropic sector can fill a role districts like this carve out, students do benefit. Programs are saved, even expanded. Equipment is kept up to date. Special student needs can be addressed. But is this how we want to fund public education?

Now, look at the oft-cited example of Finland, which does not allow private money into the public school system. It has the lowest differential between the best and worst students and the highest overall ranking for education. There is no market competition encouraged from school to school. There is no standardized testing, charter schools, or vouchers. There are no philanthropists eager to remake the schools in a particular preferred image.

Ollie Luukainin, the president of Finland’s powerful teachers’ union, says, “Equality is the most important word in education.” Yet Finland spends 30 percent less than the United States on education. This Smithsonian article takes on all of the “buts” that people have in countering the arguments about why such stuff wouldn’t work here.

Funding public education based on local conditions like property values or household wealth perpetuates existing privilege. Taking on difficult issues like these on a state or federal basis is a better approach, but one that’s much more difficult politically. NPQ has previously noted that “Most of the philanthropy directed at public schools is local, meaning that wealthy school districts enjoy a philanthropic advantage and few people are paying attention to fairness and balance.” On the other hand, when billionaire-backed philanthropy moves into districts that are more mixed- or low-income, the price can be parents’ democratic voice. With all of the flap about education in this country, children are still being treated to a basic formula that maintains and prolongs unequal treatment.—Martin Levine