On Private Donations to Public Schools

Glamorous and lucrative school auctions to support wealthy suburban schools have become a stock feature of popular writing about Silicon Valley. David Kaplan opened his 1999 book, The Silicon Boys, with an account of the over-the-top excesses of the annual charity auction of the Woodside School Foundation. And George Packer’s recent article in the New Yorker updated the scene:

The Woodside School Foundation now brings in about two million dollars a year for a school with fewer than five hundred children, and every spring it hosts a gala with a live auction. I attended it two years ago, when the theme was RockStar, and one of Google’s first employees sat at my table after performing in a pickup band called Parental Indiscretion. School benefactors, dressed up as Tina Turner or Jimmy Page, and consuming Jump’n Jack Flash hanger steaks, bid thirteen thousand dollars for Pimp My Hog! (“Ride through town in your very own customized 1996 Harley Davidson XLH1200C Sportster”) and twenty thousand for a tour of the Japanese gardens on the estate of Larry Ellison, the founder of Oracle and the country’s highest-paid chief executive. The climax arrived when a Mad Men Supper Club dinner for sixteen guests—which promised to transport couples back to a time when local residents lived in two-thousand-square-foot houses—sold for forty-three thousand dollars.

Were Woodside an anomaly, it would be easier to ignore the phenomenal amount of private giving to public schools. In an op-ed in the New York Times, “Not Very Giving,” I chose the Hillsborough Schools Foundation as an example of the trend. (Its 2012 Live Auction Catalogue is really quite something.)

The Summer 2013 fund raising mailing from the Hillsborough Schools Foundation

And it would be easy to point to similarly outsized fundraising efforts by local school foundations in Menlo Park, Palo Alto, Orinda, and Los Altos. The same is true elsewhere in the country: in pockets of New York City, in Montgomery County outside Washington D.C., and so on.

Kaplan and Packer see the fundraising galas thrown by school foundations as an opportunity to shine a light on the excesses of our current tech titans. In the current overheated Silicon Valley economy, in an age of growing inequality, school auctions only scratch the surface of such opportunities.

But the problem with school foundations goes much deeper than exposing the follies of fundraising galas among the one percent. The problem is that such activity actually exacerbates inequalities in funding between public schools, widening the already large gap between rich and poor. And it is carried on under the name of, and legal recognition as, charitable activity.

Here is a case where charity does not aid the poor, is not indifferent to the poor, but actually confers additional advantage to the already well-off. For those who understand charity to mean something about alms-giving and support for the poor, it is surprising how little of the roughly $300 billion given away annually in the United States is directed to the needy. (A few links on this: report from the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, Wonkblog post, a 2007 Wall Street Journal op-ed by Sheryl Sandberg, and a new, but gated, article I wrote on the topic here.)

In the case of school foundations, I don’t blame well-intended parents. They are seeking quite naturally to support the education of their own children. Punishing parents by banning or curtailing their support for their children is no answer, but neither is publicly subsidizing behavior that encourages activity which predictably worsens inequalities between the educational opportunities of rich and poor kids.

The problem here is policy, not parents. So the focus should be on public policy, on the basic framework that defines, structures, and governs philanthropy. This is the topic of much of my recent research. What role should philanthropy play in a democratic society? What norms should inform the policies that govern the philanthropic sector?

Such questions are also core to the work of the scholars and practitioners at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society and in our magazine, the Stanford Social Innovation Review. In 2005 I wrote there about the perverse incentives in tax policy that structure charitable giving, A Failure of Philanthropy: American Charity Shortchanges the Poor, and Public Policy is Partly to Blame. The piece has some data about the extent of private giving to public schools in California and discusses a range of public policy problems and solutions. Earlier this year, I contributed to a forum in the Boston Review on the topic What Are Foundations For? And I am completing a book, entitled Just Giving, that seeks to provide a full treatment of the role of philanthropy in democracy.

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. The solution is full public funding of our schools (in tandem with important governance reforms, for more money does not translate automatically into greater achievement).

New variations on funding the Pentagon via bake sales come to mind. I don’t agree fully with the sentiment,but this commentator illustrates the perversity of our current funding priorities:

If only we funded schools 100% and held fund raisers to get money for prisoners to have anything other than basic food and clothing.