Public Schools and Private Money

DC public school charity has become a summer news item.

In May, the DC Public Charter School Board released its annual financial audit, which contained data about donations. The DC Fiscal Policy Institute (DCFPI) analyzed the audit, in a report released at the beginning of August.

Then, in late August, the Post published two stories on donations to DC public schools. One story focused on a study showing that since 2010, DC’s public schools have received more foundation money per student than any school district in the nation. Of that, over two-thirds has gone to the DC Education Fund (which has, among other things, funded DCPS’s teacher evaluation system).

The other Post story outlined disparities in donations across DC charters, wherein three charter schools received nearly half of all DC charter fundraising dollars in a 3-year period.

The intersection of private money with public schools is not new, though it has seen immense gains in DC since mayoral control in 2007.

Across the nation, private foundations have provided billions directly for charters and charter lobbying, especially (thought not limited to) the Walton Family Foundation. That foundation, funded by the family’s fortune from Walmart, has alone provided more than $300 million to charters, including millions in direct funding and other assistance to DC charters.

But free money is not necessarily free.

This past March, the Walton Family Foundation co-sponsored a forum with the Gates Foundation for hedge fund managers interested in how best to profit from their investments in charter schools (including assessing “credit qualities” such as enrollment and academics).

The recent DCFPI report found that each DC charter with the largest donations per student had a leader “whose primary responsibility is overseeing development.”

Whatever one’s thoughts are on a secondary school leader being more involved in development than in academics, basic questions of fairness and the role of the public are at issue.

For most public schools in DC, fundraising is a literal “doughnuts to dollars” journey: Bake sales; car washes; and fruit, T shirt, bag, and candy orders fund trips, books, supplies, even personnel. There is no DC public school untouched by the need for extra funding.

So what does it mean when a public school gets a large foundation grant or donation? How is that school beholden—or not—to the desires of that benefactor, as opposed to the people who actually pay the lion’s share?

The DCFPI report found, for instance, that 84% of DC charter funding comes directly from DC taxpayers (10% comes from the federal government and between 4-6% from other sources).

Ultimately, schools are about education. But when fundraising prowess (or, in the case of that forum, investment opportunities) figure into public education, another metric is at work—and not all schools benefit equitably.

While donations and fundraising seem to pave a lovely way toward improvements in schools, it is clear from these reports that we here in DC have a greater need than ever for full disclosure on where private money in our public schools comes from and what it entails—especially as our children and their educations are viewed by some as investment commodities.

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