On April 12, the Santa Barbara Education Foundation will fête former school boardmember Annette Cordero and Jon Clark, president of the J.S. Bower Foundation. At the same event, Stanford political scientist Rob Reich will deliver a keynote speech in which he questions the value of foundations.
A seemingly incongruous guest, Reich has suggested that local education funds increase inequality rather than reduce it. To be fair, the Santa Barbara Education Foundation allocates plenty of resources to the neediest among us. For instance, it solicits funding for the Mobile Waterford Van, a traveling classroom in which an indefatigable instructor and her assistant teach literacy skills to children whose parents cannot afford to send them to preschool. And Jon Clarke averred that the majority of his foundation’s education spending is targeted at low-income Latino families.
It’s hard to ignore, however, that private giving to schools in Santa Barbara and elsewhere tends to compound the funding gaps between poor and rich schools as well as poor and rich districts. Single fundraising events at wealthier schools in the area can net more than $100,000, while other schools are happy enough if parents show up to back-to-school night. There is nothing wrong with enriching the educational resources of the most advantaged populations, but that sort of giving, argues Reich, does not fulfill the strict definition of “charity” and should not be rewarded by tax breaks.
“From the standpoint of the kid in Compton, explained Reich this week, I’m not sure how the philanthropic dollar donated to a kid in Santa Barbara benefits him, whereas a tax dollar does in some marginal way.”
Isn’t it natural for parents to give to their own kids’ school? “I don’t propose banning philanthropic contributions,” he said, “just eliminating public subsidies for giving to schools that are already relatively well off.”
Reich did laud the Santa Barbara Education Foundation for leading the recent campaign to institute parcel taxes for public schools, believing that foundations would be most effective if they did more to advocate for political solutions to inequality.
He’ll also likely advocate for reforming Proposition 13, specifically to allow fair market valuations of commercial properties. It’s hard to ignore the fact that as public investment in education has waned, schools have leaned on private funding streams to help fill the gap. The J.S. Bower Foundation, for instance, contributes to the salaries of administrative employees in both the Santa Barbara and Carpinteria school districts. While foundations come with advantages — more freedom than public agencies to innovate, for instance — they also come with questions of accountability, in that they don’t have to answer to the public.
As Reich wrote in a recent essay for the Boston Review, “The assets of a modern philanthropic foundation are set aside in a permanent, donor-directed, tax-advantaged private endowment and distributed for a public purpose. These considerable private assets give it considerable public power. And with growing wealth and income inequality, their apparent tension with democratic principles only intensifies.”
Reich’s concerns strike a chord in a city like Santa Barbara, home to countless nonprofits all fighting for the same grants from the same foundations. When he asks us to rethink our conceptions about philanthropy, he is also asking a lot more.
The Santa Barbara Hope Awards benefit reception will take place on Saturday, April 12, at the Carillo Recreation Ballroom. Tickets are $125 and available at sbefoundation.org/hope-awards-2014.