A Bad Idea

Sometimes I get on fire with an idea and I start pushing it out there and lo and behold it is totally stupid. Consequences come with stupidity, but so do lessons.

This particular bad idea was inspired by a will to do some kind of good towards the equity of public school funding. I just wanted to help! What was this bad idea? I wanted school foundations to partner with “sister schools” to spread some of their wealth around.

School foundations exist around the country, and I first learned of them when I took some of my teacher education students to a school in Knoxville. The principal informed us that the school had a foundation that paid for some of their programs and support staff. He explained that since his students mostly came from affluent backgrounds–only 15% of his students qualified for free or reduced lunch–they did not receive federal Title I school funds. The federal government has a program to supplement the budgets of schools with a sufficient percentage of students living in poverty. The Title I program, as it’s called, came out of LBJ’s War on Poverty. He kind of made it sound like his students were being punished for not being poor. Maybe I misunderstood?

Then I read about school foundations in some random post that popped up on either Twitter or Facebook. (Who knows any more?) In it, a parent described the ways in which foundations further exacerbate the inequity that exists between schools in different neighborhoods. If you’re new to this topic, when parents talk about “good” and “bad” schools, that’s usually code (ignorant or not) for “rich-white” and “poor-non-white,” respectively. The lack of equity across neighborhoods was part of the reason for Title I.

The federal Title I dollars make up only a small percentage of public school budgets. State and local taxes make up the majority of their budgets. That means there is a reliance on property taxes. That means that neighborhoods with wealthier families tend to have more well-resourced and well-staffed schools.

So now you might begin to see my reasoning behind this stupid idea…have the school foundations help out the Title I schools. You might not see yet why it’s stupid. I’ll get to that. I started talking to my colleagues and making phone calls to folks involved in Knox County Schools. What I soon found out was that, one, money was only a part of the problem, and two, whatever a foundation might propose to share would not begin to compensate for the inequities (that’s why there’s a federal program!). So it would be like the foundation saying, “Hey, you, school in poorer neighborhood. Here’s lunch money for tomorrow.”

Money is not the biggest part of the problem, part 1. Teachers want to teach at schools with school foundations. There might be some that relish the challenge of teaching “in the trenches” in Title I schools, maybe their favorite movie is Freedom Writers, maybe they legitimately have a strong call to serve. But the vast majority of teachers are white, female, and middle class, and Title I schools are poor, and they often have a majority of students of color. This mismatch is written about a lot in the educational research I read, and ideas like implicit bias and dis-conscious racism are some of the words associated with it. But I think it’s not as simple as that. Sense of purpose comes into play here. And it’s the same with principals. One administrator I met in Knox County worked his way “up” from the less-resourced high schools to one of the most-resourced high schools and he described it something like this: At the other high school I was working on just getting students to attend. Here I’m working on getting the average AP exam scores up.

For me this sums up one of the major issues. Teachers don’t want to deal with the problems of systemic racism and intergenerational poverty if they can instead go join the country club-type school. Intentions, you know what they say. Intentions get left by the wayside on the road to what’s envisioned as the easier life.

Money is not the biggest part of the problem part 2. A board member I spoke with told me about another issue, more focused on budget than teacher desire to teach at the country club schools. The schools that sit in between Title I and country club suffer monetarily. They don’t have the funds a Title I school might have to purchase laptops for every student, and they don’t have the parental involvement of schools with foundations. They’re in a donut hole.

My idea to have school foundations give money to poorer schools is a stupid idea because of money but also because of the nature of charity. Foundations have a purpose, and school foundations’ purposes relate directly to the school they’re tied to. Why would parents of the country club school want to donate to a school their children don’t go to? If they wanted to support a poorly-resourced school, they could do that without the school foundation of the well-resourced school. One could think of it as an awareness-building campaign within the school foundation, a kind of educational project on equity. But why would the “sister school” want to be window dressing for a feel-good campaign for wealthy people?

Are you convinced yet? I went barking up the wrong tree. School foundations will not be a tool for equity. They will not be a tool for education on equity. Other organizations exist with those purposes. I can accept that. I get that it was stupid. But what was troubling for me throughout the process was the ways in which the problem of inequity is entrenched. “This won’t work, and neither will anything else,” is the overall sense I got from some of the people I talked with. For me it was all very educational, as mistakes are supposed to be. Hopefully the fallout remains insignificant. And hopefully my next idea has better bones and wheels!

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