Private Funding at New York City Public Schools

Parents at some public schools in the US have recently come under criticism for their outsized private funding of public school activities. From hiring additional teaching staff to funding art programs and field trips, the money raised from parents at public schools allegedly exacerbates unequal access to  opportunities in the school system. As Richard Reeves, senior fellow in Economic Studies at The Brookings Institution, points out in his book Dream Hoarders – How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do About It this kind of money comes on top of a strong correlation between family income and quality of the school district.

Looking at data from a April 2017 report by the Center for American Progress, we mapped the 19 schools in New York City that made the report’s list of the nation’s 50 richest Parent-Teacher Associations (PTAs). Click on the map below to explore the total sum raised by a school’s PTA, the revenue per student, and the number of students at the school. Data are for fiscal year 2013/14.

Out of the 19 top-revenue public schools in the City of New York, seven are in Brooklyn, one is in Queens, and eleven are located in Manhattan. Unsurprisingly, their locations largely overlap with the wealthiest neighborhoods in New York; an observation in line with Reeves’ finding about the dual advantage of public schools in wealthy neighborhoods.

What to do about these findings? Among other measures, the Center for American Progress report proposes to put limits on how private funds at public schools can be spent, for example by precluding the hiring of additional teaching staff. Reeves suggests sharing the money affluent schools raise with schools from districts that are less well off. Measures like these could go some way in reigning in some of the inequality-aggravating effects in private funding for public schools.

However, there is an important caveat here: If relatively wealthy parents cannot spend their contributions in a way they deem best for their children in the public system, they might decide to go private altogether. This would diminish the funds at the disposal of public schools to further the advancement of all children, rich and poor.

Maybe what is needed is a cultural change that makes parents learn to appreciate the value of diversity, community and sharing, rather than focusing on the seemingly “hard” criteria of standardized test scores. In such an environment, pooling of resources across schools could become a less contested affair.


Disclosure: Christian’s daughter attends one of the schools in the top-19 list. Christian and his wife regularly contribute to the PTA fund at their daughter’s school.

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