Who Should Pay for Public Education?

Short answer: The public.

Short rationale: Public education is a public good. When it’s funded by taxes, and oversight is provided via elected boards, there is, at least nominally, a backstop against corruption and egregious inequity, and there is a public mechanism for expressing dissatisfaction as well as suggestions for improvement.

Does this always work out perfectly? Of course not. Hahahahhaha.

Does this then mean that perennially strapped public education should be open to ‘improvement’ plans funded by the very rich?

No. Because billionaires and their foundations have something other than the public good in mind when they offer school districts millions to follow a plan that sounds good to funders. Furthermore, there is no backstop against things going horribly wrong, once they’ve accepted the money and conditions, before the billionaire pulls out and claims that it’s the district’s fault that millions have been squandered.

See: Newark, New Jersey.

Foundations are not hoping to have enough money to send all the fifth graders to camp, or rebuild the orchestra program, or provide more modern science equipment. Billionaires and their organizations aren’t interested in small-potatoes needs. They want Big Sexy Ideas—like gutting tens of thousands of tailor-made local curricula (easily dismissed as a ‘patchwork’) and replacing them with national standards (which somehow will evolve into a ‘more rigorous’ national curriculum).

They want freedom (for schools to teach Creation ‘Science’)! They want accountability (which always translates, somehow, into more data, prone to errors, misinterpretations, and illegal release exposures)! They want something new and groundbreaking, something…personalized! That’s the ticket.

An argument sprang up on Twitter this morning, re: public schools taking Gates money.

Jennifer Binis says:

So. Gates is giving away money. People in different contexts in American education need money to implement projects, design new curriculum, or test new ideas. I’m getting the sense some think no one should apply for Gates money.

Apparently, there are those who look for places that have applied for Gates funding and work to put them on blast. Without understanding why said educators applied for funds or the parameters of the grant. It’s basically, “Gates bad.”

Gates makes many of the same mistakes most philanthropists make. But I legitimately don’t understand what anti-Gates people want grant applicants to do instead. Propose raising taxes? My wondering remains: where should educators get money from instead?

Well, that’s an easy one for me.
Public monies should pay for the core mission of public education, by which I mean instruction, curriculum and assessment. The daily operations of schools. Private money—lookin’ at you, Bill Gates—comes with strings and conditions. Always.

So yes, we should propose raising taxes to more adequately fund public schools, so they don’t have to apply for grants from foundations that will want control over aspects of their core work. Underfunding public education (and the rise of the Billionaire Social Entrepreneur Class) have pushed many public schools into a corner: they need more money to accomplish the things they want to be doing. The things they know will help their students flourish.

Schools can become dependent on grants. Teachers these days are often forced to Donors-Choose even basic supplies. We have abandoned truly adequate public education funding in favor of piecemeal begging and co-opting our principles for much-needed money. Public institutions, from roads, fire-fighting, hospitals and libraries to the military, need public funding. Because we all depend on them.

Binis again:

In other words, you’re saying everyone in education should be dependent on tax dollars for everything they do. That seems like an untenable, unsustainable model.  We’re not going to get out of it by telling people who accept private donations they’ve committed some grievous sin against public education.

To be clear: you’re saying get rid of the PTA. Get rid of every car wash, popcorn sale, and candy bar fundraiser. All theater performances and concerts need to be free. All sporting events need to stop charging admission or having private sponsors.

Well. I’ve never told people who accept private donations that they’re sinners. I’ve worked for three different organizations that took Gates money, and belong to another–and I’ve seen first-hand what happens when you take the big bucks. You stop trying to please your clients and members– and you start trying to do what it takes to get the next grant.

There’s also a difference between fund-raising for a specific, targeted purpose (athletics, the drama club, building the elementary library) and agreeing to play by the Gates Foundation’s grant rules. I’ve done both.  It’s often a matter of scale and expected outputs. The PTA knows precisely who will benefit from the Fall Carnival, and how. Gates is looking for confirmation of one of their Big Sexy Ideas—to ‘scale up,’ prove a point, tweak an idea.

I’m not saying that Foundations don’t sometimes do valuable work—of course they do. But they should never be considered a replacement—supplanting not supplementing—sufficient funding.

The Twitter conversation meandered, as they tend to do. But I’ll give the (spot-on) last word to Tim Fournier, long-time educator in Grand Rapids, Michigan:

I return to my previous three points that tend to get overlooked amid the side-spats. 1. Public Schools are underfunded 2. Big Philanthropy can corrupt as much as it can help. 3. Community independence should not be sold, no matter the lofty intentions.

Amen. piggy_bank_images_money

Image: Creative Commons


  1. If billionaires really want to support public education, I’m all in favor of that. There’s a really easy way for them to do it though. It’s called PAY YOUR F***ING TAXES!!! Sorry, excuse me a moment while I go wash my mouth out with soap….

    Ahem. Sorry, but one of the reasons why billionaires are billionaires in the first place is the innumerable creative ways they get out of paying what they owe to the society that makes them possible. To pretend that they want to support public education is just so insulting. What they want to to use their “philanthropy” to avoid paying for public schools and, to the extent they have to, to control how “their” money is spent on public schools.



    1. Ugh. “What they want to *do*…. Sorry, need to learn to proofread my rants. Maybe I could do that while I’m cleaning the spittle off my monitor….



    2. Well, yeah. 100% yeah. And we have the role model for not paying taxes (only suckers and poor people pay taxes) in the White House.

      After 30+ years of raising enough money to support a healthy and growing music program in a fully public school, I understand only too well what the billionaires are willing to pay for: Not for everyone. Not for kids who bring few resources to the table. No money that they don’t have control over. No programs that they can’t get credit for.



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