Laura Seitz, Deseret News
As the new school year launches, many parents with kids in public schools are inevitably asked to make a “voluntary” donation in order to offset costs for supplies or supplemental instruction.

This much we know: Raising kids costs a lot of money. Just last month, for example, the federal government estimated that raising a child born in 2012 will cost at least $217,000 — and that’s even before considering the cost of college.

So for families with one or more school-age children, it’s quite conceivable that there isn’t a lot discretionary income sitting in the bank at the end of every month. In these instances, it’s not an easy choice for parents to decide whether to make the “voluntary” donations that a lot of public schools request.

In considering whether to cut a check to your local PTA and/or comply with requested donations of Kleenex and glue sticks for your child’s classroom, here are three points that could broaden your perspective.

A vigorous policy debate exists about what to do with the money public schools solicit from parents. Stanford professor Rob Reich wrote an op-ed for the New York Times on Thursday cautioning that private donations to public schools could widen the education gap.

“Wanting to support your own children’s education is understandable, but it also has unintended, pernicious effects,” wrote Reich, who is co-director of Stanford’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. “The school foundations are legally registered as public charities … that the federal government treats in the same way as a donation to a food bank or disaster relief. But charity like this is not relief for the poor. It is, in fact, the opposite. Private giving to public schools widens the gap between rich and poor. It exacerbates inequalities in financing.”

After serving as part of the National Commission on Civic Investment in Public Education, Reich suggests that “private giving (be) aggregated across schools and shared equally with the entire school district.”

In 2012 Eleanor Yang Su penned an article for California Watch with the headline “Public School, Private Donations: The Money Debate,” which summarized a viable counterpoint to Reich’s position.

“Research on K-12 donations is limited, but some say the (school) foundations are not creating big gaps in resources,” Su wrote. “San Diego State University economics professor Jennifer Imazeki and her colleague analyzed private giving to California schools in 2003 and concluded that, while some schools have been effective at fundraising, most received less than $100 per student. They determined that while a fraction of small and wealthy schools raised extraordinary amounts of money and used it to pay for more computers, teachers aides and smaller class sizes, it was not causing inequality among the vast majority of students.”

Donations aimed at lowering class sizes or hiring instructional assistants are often viewed as a separate category from money that goes directly to classroom supplies. In 2011, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District in California debated whether or not to redistribute lavish donations given to individual schools. Per Su’s article for California Watch, the district’s school board eventually “voted to pool and redistribute donations collected across the district that will be used on personnel. Gifts for supplies and other extras (stay) with the original school.”

If you do decide to make a “voluntary” donation, take solace in knowing that your pocketbook’s plight could always be worse. Reich reported that the Hillsborough (Calif.) Schools Foundation asks parents for $2,300 per child. “Hillsborough is not an anomaly,” Reich wrote for the Times. “The foundation supporting the Palo Alto school district asks for $800 per child; in Menlo Park, it’s $1,500; and at the Ross Elementary School in Marin County, it’s a staggering $3,400.”

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