Reality Check is an occasional VOSD series where we take on a piece of prevailing wisdom about an issue we’re covering. Think of it as a cousin to Fact Check – we’re vetting a popular interpretation of an issue as opposed to any single claim.

For as long as critics have questioned whether school foundations worsen inequalities by raising millions of dollars for certain San Diego Unified schools, these nonprofit fundraising groups have countered by saying they’re only balancing the equation.

In its simplest form, the conversation goes like this: Foundations don’t worsen inequities because schools in low-income neighborhoods get federal Title I money and other funds from the state government to meet the needs of disadvantaged students.

The assumption, in other words, is that the differences are a wash.

Because this line of thinking keeps resurfacing, it’s worth a closer look. And a after a few weeks of digging around, I’ve determined that argument is one of these guys:

Image via Shutterstock
Image via Shutterstock

Those are red herrings, in case you’re wondering. It means the comparison is fundamentally flawed.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

Here are a few reasons why. First, it assumes that schools simply don’t get enough money from the state or federal government to keep their doors open and couldn’t survive if parents didn’t donate time and money.

There may be truth to that, especially because we know that California ranks near the bottom of the nation in per-pupil spending. But it’s also a separate conversation – one that has nothing to do with Title I funds.

Now, the tail-end of that herring: Title I and privately raised money are very different. When a school foundation raises and then donates cash to a school, that school can pretty much spend it however it wants. Most spend on teachers, librarians, field trips or supplemental programs like math or music.

Title I funds – federal money that’s sent to schools that have a lot of students living in poverty – come with more strings. They’re supposed to be spent on things that boost student achievement, like teacher aides or reading programs. They’re not supposed to go to electives like music or gym, and can’t be spent on athletics.

Sure, principals have a little wiggle room in how they spend Title I funds. If they’re creative, they can justify all kinds of things that push the boundaries of appropriate spending. Except for venison – you can’t buy that.

The point is, Title I money is supposed to be spent on a narrow list of programs or resources that narrow the achievement gap.

Foundation money, on the other hand, is meant to be spent on the extras. But over the years, private money has morphed into a budget staple at some schools.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Title I

Foundations brought at least $6.5 million to the district in 2011-2012, about 40 percent of which stayed in La Jolla schools.

But schools that receive Title I funds can get a lot of support, too.

Also, schools that get Title I funds will often receive additional kinds of support from the state, like money for English-language learners. So, “Title I funds” often becomes a catch-all term for all kinds of public funds that go to schools with high percentages of kids who need more resources. It’s fair to say that we’re talking about all of these types of funds.

How It Plays Out

Even though we know that public money and private money are meant for different things, let’s weigh the “private money balances out public money” argument on its face.

In 2011-2012, La Jolla High School brought in $787,000 – the most private money given to a San Diego Unified school that year – and got a little public money to pay for language resources for English learners.

City Heights’ Hoover High, on the other hand, brought in very little private money, but got about $1.4 million in federal and state money.

When you account for the number of students attending each school, Hoover actually had a little bit more money per student – about $700 per student compared with La Jolla High’s $550 per student.

If that were the end of the story, you might say that Title I schools come out just ahead, plus they don’t spend their time fundraising.

But then there are schools like Patrick Henry High in San Carlos, which had about $150 per student in combined public and private money in 2011-2012.

Henry faces the same dilemma as many schools in middle-class areas: It raises a small sum of private money, but not enough to fund programs or staff salaries. Disadvantaged students attend the school, but not enough to draw state and federal support to meet their needs.

Schools like these are more likely to leave their libraries vacant because they can’t swing the funding. And for years these in-betweener schools have been faced with tough staffing decisions and suffered the brunt of the budget cuts.

If anyone has reason to complain, it’s the schools in the middle.

Caught in the Middle

Listy Gillingham, principal of Patrick Henry High, has a long list of things she’d buy with more funding: Teachers to break up her 36-student classrooms, language classes to help the students struggling with English, and tutoring programs to help students who have fallen behind in credits.

“There is this strong feeling that the schools north of [Interstate] 8 have it made, and the truth is, we all have struggling kids who need the support,” Gillingham said.

To Gillingham, the problem isn’t school foundations. They’re a great resource, she said, but can’t match what the state and federal government provide some schools.

Her biggest beef is that Title I money doesn’t follow a student.  The district doles it out to schools based on its percentage of students who live in poverty.

But it’s a tiered system. That means that the same student might bring about $110 to Patrick Henry, but about $400 at Hoover, which has a larger percentage of disadvantaged students.

Now, let’s take a look at how this plays out across the district.

Graphic by Amy Krone
Graphic by Amy Krone


The “total money” here doesn’t include the per-student money all schools get from the state, based on their enrollment. It’s just private money (from foundations, PTAs and boosters) and public money (Title I, and state money for low-income students and English learners).

I picked these schools simply because they illustrate how money varies across town.We have the complete list of numbers, which you can see here. (Note: These figures are limited to the foundations, PTAs and booster groups that made their information publicly available. You can also see the amounts allocated by the school district here.)

The numbers produce three general trends:

• Schools in wealthy neighborhoods generally see little public money, but more private money.

• Schools in low-income neighborhoods see little foundation money, but get a lot of public money.

• The schools in the middle-class areas, like Henry High, see the least because they don’t get much from either pot.

The Verdict

We started with a common assumption: Foundation money and Title I money balance each other out.

The two kinds of money don’t represent an apples-to-apples comparison because different rules govern how they can be spent, but the raw totals show that schools that get public money do come out a little bit ahead – especially since they don’t have to raise it themselves.

That means that judging on the numbers alone, there is indeed truth to foundation supporters’ claim.

Here’s the catch. The schools in the middle, like Patrick Henry High, are being left behind.

It would be just as fair to blame foundations for causing disparities as it would to fault the district for unequally distributing Title I funds.

But this much is clear: The money doesn’t come out even in the end.

    This article relates to: Education, Fact Check, News, School Finances, School Foundations, Share

    Written by Mario Koran

    Mario is an investigative reporter focused on immigration, border and related criminal justice issues. Reach him directly at 619.325.0531, or by email:


    @SchlFinance101 My district's Education Foundation bought 90+ computers, no mention of PARCC but did reference college & career readiness.

    Richard Bagnell
    Richard Bagnell subscriber

    @Jim Jones  There is a money issue for schools in California linked to the unions...

    There is a teacher pension problem. CalSTRs is $75-80 BILLION underfunded.  Schools are spending money on pensions and the increasing cost of these mismanaged pensions, rather than on students. Surely nobody still believe you can promise a 7.5% risk free return on pension money when 10 year government bonds are yielding 2.6%?  Surely nobody can believe when schools go from having 80% of their funds go to employee pay and benefits to 90+% for adult compensation that students and their programs are the priority?

    scoutmom subscriber

    There is nothing stopping the schools in the middle from starting their own foundations.  There are a lot of ways to raise money that doesn't have to come directly from parent's pockets.   You want a better school that is supported by a foundation?  Go start one yourself!  

    And, before you say it must be easy for me to do so - I am a working single mommy.  I simply choose to go the extra mile to provide support to my daughter's school. 

    Oscar Ramos
    Oscar Ramos subscribermember

    @scoutmom  If the answer is for every school to start their own foundation, then why should taxpayers fund public schools at all? 

    Local school foundations create disincentives for their school's families to fund the entire district. 

    I would rather eliminate all of these foundations and increase school funding for all San Diego schools. 

    scoutmom subscriber

    @Oscar Ramos @scoutmomIf public schools were equally funded, I would agree with you.  However, since they are not, I must take action.  I have a limited number of years to provide a quality education to my daughter; to create a productive, independent and successful member of society.  I cannot wait for the district or government to fix the inequities or the system as a whole. 

    I also believe that when I donate $10 to my school foundation, I know it will be used in an efficient manner.  One that will directly affect my daughter's experience at school.  However, when I pay $10 in taxes, even if that $10 were to go directly into a general school fund, I have zero trust that the money will be used in an efficient manner.  It will go to union pensions, unnecessary administrators or projects that aren't effective.  

    SherryS subscriber

    You're right, schools in the middle can and do have foundations. I sit on one of them. We are mostly working Moms who work really really hard on one fundraiser after another begging for money from corporations and parents. Despite all that, we still can't make up for what other schools in the district have in terms of funding. Our elementary school library has been closed for years. We have very large class sizes. We even have to donate paper for the classrooms. This is not the kind of public education that will keep our democracy healthy.

    Oscar Ramos
    Oscar Ramos subscribermember

    @scoutmom @Oscar Ramos  I don’t blame you for investing in your child’s school. If I had kids in a local school and I had the chance to contribute some money directly to their classroom, I would probably do it too. My point is that I don’t think I should be given that chance because by allowing me to fund my kids’ school, I would probably be less likely to support funding the school on the other side of the freeway.

    It’s like if my neighborhood decided that we were going to step up and contribute to fixing our own roads, sidewalks, and streetlights, but no one else could enter our neighborhood. Next time an infrastructure bond came up to a vote, I might be inclined to vote no because we took care of the problem where we live, thus denying everyone else bond money.

    I get that we’re looking at this from two very different perspectives: I’m concerned about an eroding sense of community and equity across the district, while you have the more immediate responsibility of actually raising a child. All I’m saying is that you shouldn't have to contribute extra funds to your school. I understand you have to do it because you don’t have time for the next education bond to be proposed and passed, but when I get a chance to vote to increase your child’s education resources, I’m going to vote yes. Kids in other neighborhoods need you to vote yes as well.  

    scoutmom subscriber

    @Oscar Ramos @scoutmomHello Oscar, we do agree on much.  I don't think I should have to contribute.  But, the sad truth is - I do.  

    There is only one other distinction I would like to ensure you are aware of.  Just because I work hard to make my local school great, doesn't mean children outside my zip code cannot attend it. All schools in my zip code allow children to choice in and attend them.  So, by creating a great local product, and not making it exclusive, I feel that I am contributing to the educational needs of children outside my area.

    scoutmom subscriber

    @SherryS Hello Sherry, sounds familiar.  Even in the "rich kids" zip codes (term used by VOSD), we have large class sizes, need to donate reams of paper, piles of pens, and carts of crayons.  We have some library hours, a nurse on site only twice a week (what happens if my kid gets sick on a non-nurse day?), and kids in classrooms that read over 90 degrees on a hot day due to inadequate cooling systems on site. Our music programs have been cancelled, we share a PE coach, and have no language program.  Please don't think that we have it easy here.  We work hard, like you, and sometimes we can accomplish our goals, sometimes we can't.  But, we should never stop trying to make things better.  

    Cheers to you - a fellow working Mom. :)

    Jennifer Jacobs
    Jennifer Jacobs subscriber

    Um...let's just talk school construction from day 1.  Drive to Torrey Pines High and take a walk around and then drive to Morse High and take a walk around there.   That has absolutely nothing to do with foundation or federal dollars .  Education inequality is IMHO the greatest civil rights problem of our times.  The low income schools you talk about who get additional monies also have to pay to give incentives to teachers and for many additional issues as it relates to schools in those areas.  That does not equate to money into classrooms or for additional student benefits like music, sports, arts, etc.  

    Education choice for low income students should be a priority for everyone.  Give all children the same opportunities.  Kids in affluent areas don't need it but after watching this for 25 years - the schools keep getting worse and with more disparity and generation after generation is left without all the opportunities they should be afforded.  

    David Plettner-Saunders
    David Plettner-Saunders subscriber

    I appreciate this reporting and your analysis, Mario. I agree that equity in school funding is a complicated issue (as are most things relating to City Schools). The comments here suggest that some people feel threatened by your conclusions. For my part, I respect and admire the efforts of school foundations to raise funds and provide for their students of all backgrounds. The problem is not that some communities are in the position to supplement their children's education - it's natural and useful that parents work to improve things for their kids. The fundamental problem is that our educational system is unequal. It's worth noting that the District has not made a serious effort to raise funds on a districtwide level, which is the practice in many other school districts. Instead foundations are focused on their individual schools, which exacerbates the inequities.

    Richard Bagnell
    Richard Bagnell subscriber

    You must be smoking that red herring if you believe Foundations can spend their money any way they want!  

    Positions funded by foundations are also subject to employment requirements mandated by the district.  Foundations raise funds for all students in a school, not just local students, not just their own students.  Foundations raise money for Title I students (denied funds from the District), bused students, VEEP, and parent choice students.  

    Yes, the funding sources have some 'apple to orange' comparisons on how the money is spent.  Foundation money produces concrete results measured by new uniforms, scholarships, and employee positions.  Title I money goes to failing schools with questionable results, rather than to the Title I students and their choice of better schools funded in part by Foundations.

    As much as 50% of the Foundation money raised in the Point Loma Cluster is used on students who live outside the local area. I can afford uniforms, sports leagues, books, tutors, trainers, college, etc for my children.  The money and time I give to foundations is not about opportunity for them...................

    Glenn Younger
    Glenn Younger subscribermember

    Well done.  

    Does the state also have Title 1 type funds that they contribute beyound the stanard per student money? If so  I was not clear if that is included in the Title 1 funds you mention.  

    Not trying to create more work for a hard working reporter, just asking.  

    Mario Koran
    Mario Koran author

    Thanks for your question, @Glenn Younger. I included a link to the "categorical" funding allocated to schools, but I should also provide a kind of key. In this link, you'll see what schools got from the federal government and also what they got from the state in 2012. 

    Anything that starts with a "3" is federal money. There are three different kinds: Basic Title 1 money (30100), title 1 money that's meant to spend on engaging parents (30103), and money that schools get if they're in "program improvement," as in, there's a disparity or something they need to address in their schools (30106). Program improvement money is meant to be spent addressing those needs. 

    The category that starts with "7" is money that the schools get from the state, known as Economic Impact Aid. This includes money that schools get if a high percentage of students qualify for Free and Reduced lunch (70900) and funds schools get to spending on language learning resources if they have a lot of students learning English (70910).

    Because these all factored into a schools' budgets, and because schools got this on top of what they got for Average Daily Attendance, I included them all when I accounted for "categoricals."

    SherryS subscriber

    Great reporting Mario. This is a complicated issue, but you've done a great job of collecting the data and explaining the disparities. I urge parents in these middle class schools to show appropriate outrage about how their kids are getting shortchange and work to change the way San Diego Unified allocates funding.


    @MarioKoran not calling BS on the article. So glad to see a light being shined on this. Calling BS on the foundations and their SOPs.


    @MarioKoran school funding is so complicated it should be illegal. Keep writing this stuff and maybe we can get it changed!

    DDunn subscriber

    So, the article leads with a Lincoln photo, the chart shows Lincoln receiving the most public monies for high schools, yet there is no mention of Lincoln?