Once upon a time, not very long ago, the promise of a free, public education meant that US families and teachers could count on a mixture of local and federal funding to fully cover the costs of kindergarten through 12th grade schooling. But no more.
Since 2007, public investment in public schools has sharply tanked, leaving teachers and parents scrambling to organize against austerity, and simultaneously coordinate grassroots fundraisers and secure grants from private foundations in order to maintain basic school programs.
Although cities and states across the US began to decrease funding for public schools in the 1980s by lowering corporate tax rates, local funding for schools — which get 92 percent of their money from their city and state and 8 percent from the federal government — has taken a deep nosedive since the 2007 recession. Over the last decade, plummeting property values and reduced corporate taxation in all 50 states have resulted in reduced tax revenue, causing public investment in public schools to dip. The upshot is that by the 2015-16 academic year, 29 states were providing less funding for K-12 programs than they’d provided in 2008.
Staffing took a particularly hard hit, with local school districts slashing 351,000 jobs between 2007 and 2012. Although some of these positions have since been restored, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that the number of school employees was still 135,000 lower in 2017 than it was a decade earlier. This, despite the fact that public school enrollment has spiked by a whopping 1,419,000 pupils since 2008.
More students, combined with smaller budgets and fewer staff people, have meant that students, parents, teachers, administrators and education advocates have to contend with numerous issues. While teachers in numerous states have gone on strike to oppose the relentless cuts to education, to boost salaries for teachers and other workers, and to promote a shift in priorities to elevate public well-being over corporate profits, the challenge of raising enough money to hire an adequate number of teachers, paraprofessionals, librarians and counselors — and buy school supplies — remains front-and-center. Responses to this challenge vary: Some schools organize near-constant fundraising events while others require staff to write grant proposals to fund computer labs and classroom necessities. Still others have set up foundations whose mission is to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.
Not everyone agrees that these strategies are the best way forward, however.
Unions Demand Corporate Taxation
Nick Faber, president of the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers (SPFT), wants to see “a transformational shift” in corporate taxation. Thirty years ago, he told Truthout, Minnesota-based corporations like Bancorp, EcoLab, Travelers Insurance, 3M and Target were taxed at 13.6 percent. “That rate has been cut to 9.8 percent,” Faber begins. “Wells Fargo paid $15 million less in 2014 than they paid in 1990, when the tax rate was 12 percent. In 2014, 10 corporations paid $31 million less than they did in earlier periods.”
And it’s not just Minnesota. Nationwide, the federal corporate tax rate hasbeen reduced from 35 percent to 21 percent.
Faber stresses that the St. Paul union’s 2016 contract campaign raised this as a critical issue and helped spark conversations about corporate responsibility. “The old pattern was to get teachers to go to the state capital, tell our stories, and ask for more money for education. We never talked about where that money should come from. We now understand that we have to demand that money come from folks who have been profiting and getting tax breaks.”
What’s more, Faber and the SPFT are adamant that no amount of corporate philanthropy — the hundreds of millions of dollars that have poured into schools through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Verizon, Coca Cola, Google, Walt Disney or Expedia — can replace the payment of corporate taxes.
Rob Reich, a Stanford University professor of political science, agrees that neither individual nor corporate giving can replace government-funded public services. “Tax policy makes federal and state governments complicit in the deepening of existing inequalities that they are ostensibly responsible for diminishing,” he wrote in 2013. He further argues that private giving to public schools actually widens the gap between rich and poor because the already well off can afford to subsidize their children’s education while low-income families cannot.
And then there’s the potentially more insidious agenda of donors — an agenda that has the power to shape what kids learn. The Houston Chronicle lays it out: Businesses that provide monetary contributions to schools or that give release time to employees to volunteer in classrooms get a huge public relations boost, allowing them to crow about their generosity and boast of their good corporate citizenship in the media. Less publicized is the curricular steering that seeks to “refocus teaching techniques and curriculums to better prepare students … [for] what employers need from those entering the workforce.”
Teachers Remain Desperate for Supplies
For their part, many public school teachers are so desperate for materials — computers, books, paper and pencils — that they are less concerned about where the materials come from, or even if they come with specific directives, than they are about having the supplies they need to do their jobs. They’ve come to rely on websites like DonorsChoose, which gives teachers a platform for requesting donations — albeit an inadequate substitute for government aid — from the general public for a specific purpose. This, they concede, lets government off the hook and puts fundraising responsibility in the hands of already overburdened teachers and families.
DonorsChoose requests are often small:
Mrs. Stewart of Vancleave Upper Elementary School in Vancleave, Mississippi, requested money for audio books “because my students have read-aloud accommodations.”
Ms. Duncan of Rangeview High School in Aurora, Colorado, requested “positive coping tools — coloring pages and fidgets, school supplies, and snacks to help my students be ready to learn and continue working throughout the day.”
Teacher McCoy of the Homer Elementary School in Homer, Louisiana, requested “headphones with microphones and earbuds to effectively work in a technology-based classroom.”
Ms. Hatzigiannaki of the Horizon Science Academy in Lorraine, Ohio, requested “canned cranberries, yams, corn, green beans, and other non-perishables to complete holiday meal boxes for our neediest families.”
Lauren Sanchez, a kindergarten teacher at PS/IS 30 in Brooklyn, New York, has also repeatedly utilized the DonorsChoose site. “The PTA purchased one IPOD for my class but I wanted more so I sent a letter home to the student’s parents with a photo of what I was trying to get,” she begins. “I explained DonorsChoose and said that this was a tool we can utilize to buy something extra for the classroom. I made clear that anything they donate will benefit their child for the year they are with me. Parents and strangers donated more than $1000 and I was able to buy five IPODS and a charging station.”
Sanchez is proud of this, and as an active member of the United Federation of Teachers, believes that she can both fight against long-term austerity and do the short-term fundraising necessary to provide her students with the supplies they need. “I knew almost nothing about fundraising before I entered the classroom, but teaching now requires us to get used to raising money,” she says. “I had to learn the best ways to fundraise and I had to become my own marketing strategist.”
High School English teacher Lucas Johnson, of Harvest Collegiate High School in Manhattan, has also had to become a quick study in the art of raising funds. Johnson maintains a library with hundreds of books in his classroom. This, he explains, is meant to enable students to spend 30 minutes a day doing independent reading. Like Sanchez, he and his colleagues have used DonorsChoose. Nonetheless, he says he prowls library sales and flea markets to purchase books he thinks his students might enjoy, contributing out-of-pocket to offset the budgetary shortfall he confronts each and every day. “I have never asked for money from students or their families to pay for anything,” he says, “but sometimes books go missing. This is a good problem to have but, on the other hand, the harsh reality is that we then have to replace the books which costs money.” Usually his money.
Foundations Enter the Mix
Robin Callahan is the executive director of the National School Foundation Association a network of more than 900 local foundations explicitly established to help school districts raise money for public schools. Although she says that she would like nothing more than to see the need for NSFA evaporate, she doesn’t imagine this will happen in the foreseeable future. “The education foundation movement kicked off in the 1980s and 1990s when we realized that we could not rely on public dollars for education,” she says. “This is actually no different from what colleges and universities have been doing for decades.”
“Most education is funded out of state dollars,” she continues. “given that, we hope in the future to advocate around funding issues, but right now we see ourselves as a conduit for finding the resources to meet unmet student needs.” This, she says, includes everything from setting up well-stocked food pantries, to buying books and helping provide wi-fi and computer access to students who need it.
Still, Callahan says that she understands, and is sympathetic to, the argument raised by Nick Faber, but she says: “If education foundations had not grown and risen, it would have meant that students would not have had access to programs and opportunities. The fact is, education foundations are no longer the icing on the cake. Increasingly, we are the cake itself.”
Parent Jacqueline Kraft is active in SchoolForce, an education foundation that has raised more than $2 million for California’s Belmont-Redwood Shores School District since 2004. All money raised, Kraft explains, is given to the district, which then distributes it to the area’s seven schools. Funds, she continues, have been used to pay for physical education instructors; 4th and 5th grade music teachers; middle school instrument purchase and repair; computers; elementary and middle school art classes; reading specialists; 4th and 5thgrade science teachers; and library staff.
“Proposition 13, an anti-taxation measure passed by California voters in 1978, changed the way public schools in the state get funded,” Kraft begins. “As soon as my sons began school it was obvious that things that were once considered basic were not being provided.”
SchoolForce was formed as a fundraising entity to benefit district schools; in addition to providing funding for staff hires, it provides small grants — $300 to $500 — to individual teachers for supplies or special projects. Kraft further notes that while corporations and businesses have contributed to the foundation, most of the money raised comes from parents. “This is an affluent area,” she says, “and everyone realizes that public schools are cost effective when compared to their private counterparts. Our ask from each family is $1,500 for each enrolled child. We have an annual kick-off event on November 1. This year I bought 3,000 fake mustaches, which will be used for a photo op. A picture of the mustached kids will accompany a, ‘We mustache you to support SchoolForce’ letter. I spent about $100 on the mustaches but I expect this donation to bring in thousands.”
Each year, SchoolForce fundraising runs from November through the end of the school year, Kraft adds. “The money raised is for essentials. For example, we pay for reading specialists. People understand that if a classroom teacher is spending a lot of time with the kids who need additional help, it takes away from the other children. We have to have this additional person. We also fund middle school counselors, gym teachers and the people who do the technical training for teachers.”
But what about families that can’t pony up $1,500? What about the homeless or those with scant savings, those whose checking accounts may not include any extra for school supplies or materials?
Francine Almash, a single mother of three sons living 3,000 miles from Kraft in New York City, says that when her oldest was in 6th grade, he was told that he would be unable to participate in the end-of-year assembly unless she came up with $50. “The show happened after the school day ended, so I’m guessing that the kids whose families could not pay the fee just went home,” she says. “But it made absolutely no sense that we were pushed to pay this amount because we’d already had to supply the school with copy paper, pens, pencils, paper towels and other stuff throughout the year. Even if you buy everything from the dollar store, the supplies requested come to at least $100 a kid. Many people can’t possibly spend this much.”
Teachers are also feeling the pinch, paying huge amounts of money — estimates range between $200 and $2,000 — per year on supplies, food, books and other stuff for their students. The result? Burnout, anger and resentment toward a system that seems content to be a revolving door rather than a stable career path.
For Saint Paul Federation of Teachers president Nick Faber, these realities bring his argument about corporate responsibility full circle. “What I’ve seen is that the same organizations that are getting huge tax breaks donate money to public education programs,” he told Truthout. “School districts are so underfunded and desperate that they have developed a kind of Stockholm Syndrome in which they honor and praise the very same corporations that are starving our schools by not paying their taxes. But charity is not a replacement for government.”
Eleanor Bader teaches English at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, New York. She is a 2015 winner of a Project Censored award for “outstanding investigative journalism” and a 2006 Independent Press Association award.