June 18, 2019 | 72° F

REYES: Caution is needed with private philanthropy

Opinions Column: And (Economic) Justice For All

Earlier this week, Chancelor Johnathan Bennett, better known as Chance the Rapper, announced plans to donate $1 million to Chicago Public Schools (CPS). The announcement follows Chance’s meeting with Gov. Bruce Rauner (R-Ill.) ( last Friday which left him feeling unsatisfied over the governor’s “vague” answers). A native of Chicago’s West Chatham neighborhood, Chance met with Rauner to discuss the dire situation Chicago’s public schools are in: Despite CPS facing a budget shortfall of approximately $500 million in the past fiscal year, Rauner vetoed a measure to provide the district with state aid.

Chance’s donation comes about three months after Ashley C. Ford, a New York-based writer, took to Twitter to encourage followers to help local school kids. “A cool thing you can do today is try to find out which of your local schools have kids with overdue lunch accounts and pay them off,” wrote Ford. Since then, thousands of people across the country have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay off school lunch debt accrued by students. According to a 2016 survey conducted by the School Nutrition Association, nearly three-quarters of school districts had unpaid school meal debt which can accrue if low-income families do not have enough to cover the cost of reduced lunch, students forget lunch money or parents forget to add funds to prepaid accounts.

Celebrities donating millions of dollars to public schools? Local residents paying off students’ school lunch debt? What is the state of our nation if our public schools are grossly underfunded and our kids are going hungry and into debt for school lunch? While it appears to be beneficial to the neediest of students, private philanthropy is being used to fund government work, ultimately exacerbating the divide between the poor and elite.

A major talking point in this discussion is that most philanthropy directed at public schools is local, so wealthy school districts benefit from their families having more dispensable income to fund public school activities. The power of parent-teacher organizations (PTOs) to raise funds for their individual schools is immense. Efforts like those of DonorsChoose.org, an organization whose mission is to address educational inequity through private philanthropy, do not come close to mitigating disparities between poorer, under-resourced districts and their wealthier counterparts. In 2014, DonorsChoose.org raised $80 million while local PTOs, school foundations and booster clubs raised a reported $880 million. This revenue figure is undoubtedly understated since many of these organization do not file annual 990 tax returns.

Furthermore, the donations made by celebrities like Chance the Rapper and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who donated $100 million to Newark Public Schools (NPS) in 2010, are small drops in enormous budgets — CPS’s 2015 budget was nearly $5.5 billion and NPS’s was well over $1 billion. Philanthropic funding can hardly, if ever, cover the huge budget shortfalls high-need districts face yet so much of our efforts are on praising celebrities and venture philanthropists instead of holding government accountable for funding the needs of all public schools. Why do we look to wealthy icons to ensure students have all the materials they need to succeed? Even then, these large donations have a history of being mishandled, mismanaged and abused.

All this while numerous government agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and others incorporate their own philanthropic arms raising transparency and longevity concerns. Nonprofits, and the foundations that support them, are innovative new approaches to societal issues that government can emulate and advocate for the services we all need. They are intended to be supplements, not substitutes: In this respect, philanthropy is becoming a source for “plugging government budget gaps” in the age of small government and fiscal constraints. This has serious implications for the nonprofit sector whose employees account for 10 percent of all private sector employment and for the 62 million volunteers who contribute to these organizations.

The socioeconomic and racial disparities in Chicago, and other large urban cities, are stark: A recent Brookings Institution report cited Chicago as the most segregated major metropolitan area in the United States. Understanding how segregated neighborhoods and schools influence life outcomes, it is crucial that we address inequality in the system. While efforts to infuse public school systems with philanthropic dollars may seem like a good fix, these budget gimmicks will not address the racist, classist undertones and consequences stemming from decades of disinvestment. To transform public schools, we need to invest our capital — financial, human, social and political — in a transparent movement that is inclusive of community organizing and empowerment. Only then can our shared vision of opportunity for all children be realized.

Thalya Reyes is an Edward J. Bloustein School master's candidate for public policy and city and regional planning. Her column, “And (Economic) Justice For All,” runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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Thalya Reyes

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