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Towns Tap Private Pockets to Fill Empty Public-School Wallets

But some say school foundations may widen the gap between rich and poor

STUDENTS at Newton North High School have seen the future, and it is acrylic shoe boxes.

The electrode-fused containers are essential equipment for viewing genetic materials - to tell, for instance, whether a biological sample comes from a toad or a zucchini.

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The boxes line the walls of a new biotechnology laboratory the school has set up to help students learn about one of the rapidly emerging fields of tomorrow.

That schools in this leafy Boston suburb have their own genetic lab may seem extravagant when many others schools are having problems buying books. But the science project here isn't the result of taxpayer money: It is the product of a $2,000 grant from a private foundation set up to support the school.

''Our goal is that every kid will experience a lab or two using this equipment,'' says Tom Gwin, head of the biology department, as he shows off a gel eletrophoresis machine. ''We tell them it's a great skill to have.''

Welcome to the brave - and controversial - new world of private financing for public schools.

In an era of dwindling funds for education, parents and administrators are increasingly looking for new ways to keep schools from deteriorating into Dickensian dormitories. Private entities such as the Newton Schools Foundation have become a popular alternative.

To supporters, the foundations are a welcome sign of increased parental involvement, as well as a creative solution to funding problems. But critics worry the influx of private money will only widen the gap between rich and poor districts.

''I'm not criticizing these districts for trying to improve their schools,'' says Joyce Epstein, education expert at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. ''If it's to protect the quality of education against a decrease in funding from the state, that's a sensible decision. But equity issues are a serious debate.''

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At least 2,000 towns and cities nationwide have set up foundations to fund special projects that tax dollars cannot support. Some towns, such as La Jolla, Calif., have multiple foundations: one for the district and another for the high school, in the hopes of improving the quality of their children's education.

Even before Abraham Lincoln did his homework by candlelight, American schools were paid for by local property taxes. This arrangement, as any realtor can attest, often leaves richer towns with better schools. But funding for all schools has taken a hit since the late 1970s, when tax-revolt initiatives such as Proposition 13 in California and Proposition 2-1/2 in Massachusetts put caps on property taxes.

''Proposition 2-1/2 says we can only raise revenue by 2-1/2 percent [per year], but our student population is growing by 4 percent,'' says Irwin Blumer, superintendent of the Newton School District. ''So we end up constraining costs and increasing the class size.

''We still do a great job, because the teachers are great,'' he says. ''But doing more with less - you can't operate like that over 10 years. That's where the Newton Schools Foundation comes in.''

But while corporations have begun to offer support to troubled inner-city schools, many districts - especially those in poorer rural areas - cannot rely on local donations to fill budget gaps.

''Traditionally, parents have made up the difference in low school funding, through bake sales or by selling candy bars,'' says Kathleen Lyons, a spokeswoman for the National Parent Teacher Association in Chicago. But setting up a foundation is a ''lifeboat strategy,'' she says. ''It saves a few but it doesn't address the problem of inadequate education funding.''

Hoping to redress the imbalance, some poor school districts have filed suits to get their ''fair share.'' Lawsuits in Texas, New Jersey, and Michigan, for instance, are forcing state lawmakers to level the playing field, which could force richer towns to cut back.

But unless states increase school funding somehow, says Michael Kirst, an education professor at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., equity alone will merely bring every school down to the lowest common denominator. ''All districts are drawn down by the inability to [raise] the property tax.''

''Education is a personnel-centered business, like it or not,'' he says, noting that 80 percent of most school budgets goes toward salaries. ''Whatever else you do [such as local foundations] is around the edges.''

In Newton, members of the decade-old Newton Schools Foundation raised $100,000 last year, going from Victorian door to door. This money went to innovative projects - from the high-school's biotech lab to a multimedia library at Cabot Elementary School.

Grants have also been awarded to fund sixth-grade math fairs, a thematic literature unit where first-graders read versions of Cinderella from around the world, and a Crisis Intervention Handbook.

Beth Tishler, executive director of the foundation, admits that the Newton's 10,300 students receive an excellent education compared with that offered in inner-city Boston, Detroit, or Los Angeles. But this still isn't enough.

''People here have a choice,'' she says, noting Newton's affluence. ''If we're not providing a first-class education for students, they can go to private schools. What do we lose? We lose those parents, and their support, and their money.''

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