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Education

Does private funding have a place in public schools?

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Should an anonymous donor be able to save a public school? 

The question was raised by a story I listened to yesterday on NPR.

Traverse City Area Public Schools in northern Michigan has lost 12% of its students in the past decade. And last fall its superintendent recommended closing three elementary schools.

But just as school board members voted to close two of the schools, an anonymous donor came with an offer of over $800,000 to keep the third elementary school open. Old Mission Peninsula School is in an affluent area. But with only 168 students, it's costing the district too much money.

Now the question of whether or not the district should accept the donation to save the school is up for debate.

Traverse City's Superintendent Paul Soma tells NPR if the donation came with restrictions that would give the Old Mission students an educational advantage, for example, reducing class sizes, school officials would not accept the money. But they're not disclosing what specific restrictions are attached to the offer.

Public schools receiving private money is not a new concept. A 2014 study found nonprofits organized by parents and community leaders, like school foundations and parent-teacher associations, more than tripled in number and more than quadrupled the dollars they generated between 1995 and 2010.

And according to The New York Times, communities with higher median incomes were more likely to have these fund-raising groups in the first place and more likely to raise more money per student than those in less affluent neighborhoods.

But these donations raise concerns about a growing gap between schools with well-heeled parent groups and those without. And it's a long-standing question in education: Should schools with access to more resources be able to spend more money? Or should every student, regardless of what town or district they live in, have equal access to funding?

Meghan Flaska has three kids in Traverse public schools. She told NPR it's a generous offer, but doesn't send a good message:

You've got to be kidding me. The idea that one particular school could benefit in a public school system doesn't make logical sense. I don't think that fosters a sense of community. I think it actually enhances the suggestion that there are the haves and the have-nots.

Earl Forton is a parent of a student at Interlochen Community School. He told NPR:

I think it is fair because they're trying to keep a school open in their community. And I can appreciate that. And I think that if the tables were turned, the other school would be supportive that at least one of the schools has a chance to stay open.

For now, the other two schools will close. But what happens to Old Mission is still undecided.

You can listen to the full story on NPR here.

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