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Money & Ethics

Should Parents' Donations to Public Schools Be Limited?

Private donations could lead to educational inequality.

Q. For many years, the PTA at my children’s public elementary school has raised money from parents, in tax-deductible donations, to supplement the school budget. The PTA’s foundation pays for teachers’ aides, field trips, music lessons, playground equipment and other things. Now our school district is proposing that these expenditures be severely limited because they put students at less-affluent schools at a disadvantage. Do you think a ban is fair?

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A. This is a hot issue all over America, and there is no easy answer. The libertarian side of my brain says government has no right to tell parents how they may use their own money to benefit their children’s school, so an outright ban strikes me as unethical. But the socially progressive side of my brain (or my heart) acknowledges that this private funding exacerbates educational inequality to the detriment of our nation (in ill-prepared workers, welfare dependency and other problems).

School districts are dealing with this dilemma in many ways. Some have no restrictions on private gifts from parents, businesses and foundations. Some, such as affluent Montgomery County, Md., disallow gifts to pay for staff, classes and basic facilities that should be covered by public funds, but do allow gifts to pay for amenities such as a new scoreboard, landscaping, artificial-turf fields and playground equipment. (Some projects there cost as much as $1 million.) The county has a review panel that approves such projects, with a vague guideline that the amenity may not “foster or exacerbate inequity.”

A compromise I find appealing—now used in a number of places and being considered in many others—is allowing parents to raise money for their own school’s use (staffing included), but encouraging or requiring them to share some of what they raise with the PTAs of poorer schools nearby.