Reality Check is an occasional VOSD series where we take on a piece of prevailing wisdom about an issue we’re covering. Think of it as a cousin to Fact Check – we’re vetting a popular interpretation of an issue as opposed to any single claim.

For as long as critics have questioned whether school foundations worsen inequalities by raising millions of dollars for certain San Diego Unified schools, these nonprofit fundraising groups have countered by saying they’re only balancing the equation.

In its simplest form, the conversation goes like this: Foundations don’t worsen inequities because schools in low-income neighborhoods get federal Title I money and other funds from the state government to meet the needs of disadvantaged students.

The assumption, in other words, is that the differences are a wash.

Because this line of thinking keeps resurfacing, it’s worth a closer look. And a after a few weeks of digging around, I’ve determined that argument is one of these guys:

Image via Shutterstock
Image via Shutterstock

Those are red herrings, in case you’re wondering. It means the comparison is fundamentally flawed.

Here are a few reasons why. First, it assumes that schools simply don’t get enough money from the state or federal government to keep their doors open and couldn’t survive if parents didn’t donate time and money.

There may be truth to that, especially because we know that California ranks near the bottom of the nation in per-pupil spending. But it’s also a separate conversation – one that has nothing to do with Title I funds.

Now, the tail-end of that herring: Title I and privately raised money are very different. When a school foundation raises and then donates cash to a school, that school can pretty much spend it however it wants. Most spend on teachers, librarians, field trips or supplemental programs like math or music.

Title I funds – federal money that’s sent to schools that have a lot of students living in poverty – come with more strings. They’re supposed to be spent on things that boost student achievement, like teacher aides or reading programs. They’re not supposed to go to electives like music or gym, and can’t be spent on athletics.

Sure, principals have a little wiggle room in how they spend Title I funds. If they’re creative, they can justify all kinds of things that push the boundaries of appropriate spending. Except for venison – you can’t buy that.

The point is, Title I money is supposed to be spent on a narrow list of programs or resources that narrow the achievement gap.

Foundation money, on the other hand, is meant to be spent on the extras. But over the years, private money has morphed into a budget staple at some schools.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Title I

Foundations brought at least $6.5 million to the district in 2011-2012, about 40 percent of which stayed in La Jolla schools.

But schools that receive Title I funds can get a lot of support, too.

Also, schools that get Title I funds will often receive additional kinds of support from the state, like money for English-language learners. So, “Title I funds” often becomes a catch-all term for all kinds of public funds that go to schools with high percentages of kids who need more resources. It’s fair to say that we’re talking about all of these types of funds.

How It Plays Out

Even though we know that public money and private money are meant for different things, let’s weigh the “private money balances out public money” argument on its face.

In 2011-2012, La Jolla High School brought in $787,000 – the most private money given to a San Diego Unified school that year – and got a little public money to pay for language resources for English learners.

City Heights’ Hoover High, on the other hand, brought in very little private money, but got about $1.4 million in federal and state money.

When you account for the number of students attending each school, Hoover actually had a little bit more money per student – about $700 per student compared with La Jolla High’s $550 per student.

If that were the end of the story, you might say that Title I schools come out just ahead, plus they don’t spend their time fundraising.

But then there are schools like Patrick Henry High in San Carlos, which had about $150 per student in combined public and private money in 2011-2012.

Henry faces the same dilemma as many schools in middle-class areas: It raises a small sum of private money, but not enough to fund programs or staff salaries. Disadvantaged students attend the school, but not enough to draw state and federal support to meet their needs.

Schools like these are more likely to leave their libraries vacant because they can’t swing the funding. And for years these in-betweener schools have been faced with tough staffing decisions and suffered the brunt of the budget cuts.

If anyone has reason to complain, it’s the schools in the middle.

Caught in the Middle

Listy Gillingham, principal of Patrick Henry High, has a long list of things she’d buy with more funding: Teachers to break up her 36-student classrooms, language classes to help the students struggling with English, and tutoring programs to help students who have fallen behind in credits.

“There is this strong feeling that the schools north of [Interstate] 8 have it made, and the truth is, we all have struggling kids who need the support,” Gillingham said.

To Gillingham, the problem isn’t school foundations. They’re a great resource, she said, but can’t match what the state and federal government provide some schools.

Her biggest beef is that Title I money doesn’t follow a student.  The district doles it out to schools based on its percentage of students who live in poverty.

But it’s a tiered system. That means that the same student might bring about $110 to Patrick Henry, but about $400 at Hoover, which has a larger percentage of disadvantaged students.

Now, let’s take a look at how this plays out across the district.

Graphic by Amy Krone
Graphic by Amy Krone

The “total money” here doesn’t include the per-student money all schools get from the state, based on their enrollment. It’s just private money (from foundations, PTAs and boosters) and public money (Title I, and state money for low-income students and English learners).

I picked these schools simply because they illustrate how money varies across town.We have the complete list of numbers, which you can see here. (Note: These figures are limited to the foundations, PTAs and booster groups that made their information publicly available. You can also see the amounts allocated by the school district here.)

The numbers produce three general trends:

• Schools in wealthy neighborhoods generally see little public money, but more private money.

• Schools in low-income neighborhoods see little foundation money, but get a lot of public money.

• The schools in the middle-class areas, like Henry High, see the least because they don’t get much from either pot.

The Verdict

We started with a common assumption: Foundation money and Title I money balance each other out.

The two kinds of money don’t represent an apples-to-apples comparison because different rules govern how they can be spent, but the raw totals show that schools that get public money do come out a little bit ahead – especially since they don’t have to raise it themselves.

That means that judging on the numbers alone, there is indeed truth to foundation supporters’ claim.

Here’s the catch. The schools in the middle, like Patrick Henry High, are being left behind.

It would be just as fair to blame foundations for causing disparities as it would to fault the district for unequally distributing Title I funds.

But this much is clear: The money doesn’t come out even in the end.

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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