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Do Donations to Schools Tip the Educational Scale?

The question of whether outside donations increase educational inequity in California has been a topic of conversation ever since the 1971 Serrano v. Priest ruling that inequality in school funding – which necessarily follows from funding education with property taxes – was unconstitutional.

Where a logical step would be to change the basis of education funding, California instead created a system that re-distributed property taxes via the state. The result was California’s convoluted dual funding system of revenue-limited (directly state-funded) and basic-aid (locally-funded).

This was supposed to even things out by giving less state money to rich districts (basic-aid) and more to less affluent ones. But districts with high real estate values – and high property tax revenues – still retained an advantage because they got to keep the excess revenue above the limit.


When voters passed Proposition 13, they cut property taxes, and effectively voted to take California’s investment in education from being one of the top in the country to being one of the lowest. In fact, some researchers think that Serrano’s redistribution in part fueled Prop 13’s passage.*

Funding inequalities persist because the underlying funding mechanism hasn’t changed. For example, Hillsborough school district has a budget of about $20 million to serve 1,500 students ($13,000 per student) while Berryessa district serves 7,700 students with a budget of about $50 million ($7,000 per student). Both are basic-aid districts.

After juggling property taxes didn’t seem to change the inequity picture much, attention turned to parent donations. Unsurprisingly, wealthier districts also receive more donations. For example, Burlingame Intermediate School’s PTA – where the median home price $1,575,100 – raises more than $50,000 a year for the school. By contrast the Berryessa Education Foundation – where the median home price is $678,500 – nets about $20,000.

It sounds convincing. And some districts, seeing those kinds of numbers, forced schools to pool a percentage of their donations for district use. However, researchers studying the question found that, in fact, donations have little impact on the vast majority of California schools.

In a 2003 study, “Private Contributions and Public School Resources” by Eric Brunner and Jennifer Imazeki** researchers found that while schools raising particularly high levels of contributions, over $500 per pupil, do tend to have more resources, such schools are extremely rare. In 99 percent of California schools the impact of donations is about $40 per student, $60 in 2014 dollars.

Even if that adds up to the equivalent of one more teacher, you can’t give each of 500 students in a school 1/500th of a teacher, or reduce a class by half a student. In Santa Clara Unified, donations to Don Callejon School are being criticized as inequitable by some members of the school board.

For example, one $2,652 donation was for lunchtime supervisors. That’s about one-tenth of the pay for that job. It’s hard to see how one-tenth more lunchtime supervision is going to have an impact on whether or not Callejon students graduate from college.

Certainly, some donations can have a significant impact on small cohorts of students, such as $3,000 for Santa Clara High’s woodshop. But no one is arguing that students taking woodshop have an unfair advantage over, say, students taking journalism – a field with far more dismal career and financial prospects than carpentry.

Brunner and Imaseki also found that donations drop as schools get larger.

As the sociologist Christopher Jencks observed in his 1972 book, Inequality, “…if we want to redistribute income, the most effective strategy is…to redistribute income.” If we want to invest more money on education, the most effective strategy is to invest more of our money in education. In other words, change the funding structure and levy taxes in order to pay for the education we believe our children should have. It’s still a lot cheaper than private schools.

*Did Serrano Cause a Decline in School Spending?” by Fabio Silva and Jon Sonsteliele, 1995, published by the National Tax Association (

** “Private Contributions and Public School Resources”


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