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As Nonprofit Foundations Blossom, Funding Inequality Persists

Political Scientists' Study Shows Wealthier Schools Are Magnets for Donations

May 1, 2014

Two Cal State Fullerton political scientists are delving into the issue of California school funding — specifically the establishment of nonprofit foundations — and finding that despite a 43-year-old ruling to equalize public school funding, inequity still exists.

"I've studied education finance policy for several years, and Dr. Arsneault studies nonprofits and how they impact policy," said Sarah A. Hill, assistant professor of political science, who is working with Shelly Arsneault, professor of political science, on the ongoing study along with D. Roderick Kiewiet of Caltech.

"We come to the issue as political scientists with the understanding that California, through the 1971 Serrano v. Priest decision, sought explicitly to equalize school funding," said Arnseault.

"In our discussions about our research, we realized that there's an interesting overlap — nonprofits that are affecting public education. We started talking about the local education foundations that we already knew about and realized that there were some very interesting questions of how much money they're raising and which of these foundations are able to raise the most revenue," said Hill. As academics they agreed: "Someone really should look into that! We decided it might as well be us."

"Other scholars have looked at local education foundations over the years and in different states, such as Oregon and Florida." These foundations "are used rather differently than in the state of California," said Arsneault.

The researchers reviewed 1,500 school foundations, PTAs, booster clubs and other fundraising groups. The information was compiled, along with Internal Revenue Service data, in a database, Hill said. A preliminary report on the research is available on the Cal State Fullerton Center for Public Policy website

Did you have an idea of what you would find when you began the study?

"Because of anecdotal stories we've heard, we were pretty sure that wealthier school districts would be able to raise more money for their schools, but we weren't sure just how much more. We also weren't sure about whether other demographic variables would matter. We've been able to test these relationships through data collection and analysis, which is important in research."

What was the biggest surprise — was there a surprise — for you?

"The reactions people have had to our research have been interesting. Some people are intrigued because they didn't know that education foundations were a 'thing,' and they are concerned about whether they're introducing inequality into public schools.

"Some of the foundations have become understandably defensive; they're worried that we're critiquing them.

"It's more subtle than that. Everyone understands that parents are concerned about the education of their children and want to be involved. The bigger question is whether we're concerned that many children in California don't have this same access to a quality education."

Are there key points that you found?

"So far, our key finding is that wealthier school districts — measured by the median family income — do, in fact, raise more revenue per pupil for their foundations. It's a statistically significant finding. Smaller schools and districts also raise more money per pupil, which is what we would expect from the social science literature.

"We're still working on incorporating additional data in our analysis, but these results have been strong. Schools that have foundations contribute, on average, about $250 per pupil, which can make a real difference in terms of resources available to teachers and students."

What do you hope to achieve from your study? How do you think it can be used?

"I think that, more than anything, our study is a call for attention to how desperately California needs quality schools," said Hill. "In districts where parents are able, they're trying to make up the difference between public funding and what is needed to provide a quality education. But that doesn't provide resources for districts where parents don't have that ability, and California still has a responsibility to ensure that all children have access to a quality education."

"If there is anything I'd hope to achieve from the study it's a reconsideration of the reason that we wanted equitable school funding in the first place: to ensure that all students have access to quality education, not just the students already advantaged," said Arsneault. "I'd like to begin a conversation about how valuable a good public education system is for everyone in society."

Tags:  Academics & Research