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Public School, Private Donations: The Money Debate

The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District isn't alone in its concerns about how private donations benefit public schools, California Watch reports.

Editor's Note: This article was published today on the Huffington Post, courtesy of California Watch, putting the recent Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District in context with what's happening at other school districts across the state. A committee formed to mold the district's new fundraising policy will meet for the first time in public 4 p.m. Monday.

By Eleanor Yang Su

School foundations and PTAs used to raise money for the extras - high-tech projectors and special field trips. But these days, private donations to schools have grown dramatically and are being used to prevent teacher layoffs, keep libraries open, and save music and foreign-language classes.

California K-12 foundations, PTAs and booster clubs raised about $1.3 billion in 2007, according to the most recent tax filings analyzed by the Public Policy Institute of California. That's up from $70 million in 1989, according to the institute.

"There has been steady growth, and unfortunately, there is enough need to go around," said Susan Sweeney, executive director of the California Consortium of Education Foundations. She estimates there are at least 650 educational foundations in the state.

While some see opportunity with the donations, others are troubled by an increasing reliance on private donors for day-to-day operations. They also raise concerns about a growing gap between schools with well-heeled parent groups and those without.

Across the state, it's prompting districts to consider whether they ought to centralize their fundraising and distribute it more evenly among their schools. The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District made that in November. The school board voted to pool and redistribute donations collected across the district that will be used on personnel. Gifts for supplies and other extras will stay with the original school.

Several other districts have taken similar steps, including those in Manhattan Beach and Palo Alto.

"I think we're going to see more of this," Sweeney said. "In some ways, it's a natural progression. ... There is a sense that school boards and foundations and administrations are trying to look at providing opportunities across a district. I think that that's a step forward. It's not just focused on 'my child, my classroom, my school.'"

But some foundation experts say striving for equality could hurt some schools.

"I don't feel that someone should come in and say, 'We need to take away your money and give it to someone else,'" said Jim Collogan, executive director of the National School Foundation Association. "If they want to do it on their own, that's fine. But otherwise, what they're doing is taking away parents' incentive to give."

Research on K-12 donations is limited, but some say the foundations are not creating big gaps in resources.

Read the full story on the California Watch website.

Eleanor Yang Su is an investigative reporter for California Watch, a project of the non-profit Center for Investigative reporting. Find more California Watch stories here.

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