It Takes a Village...and More Philanthropy and Volunteerism: The Challenge of Funding Public Education

Boy and girl in science class

When LeBron James recently committed to funding the “I Promise” education initiative in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, the NBA superstar joined a list of celebrities dedicated to improving public education in America.

But will it work?

Faced with program cuts, unfunded mandates, constantly evolving curriculum and assessments, the public education industry faces steep challenges, particularly in providing a thorough and efficient education to the most vulnerable populations. Public education is funded by nearly half of the average property tax bill in some areas across America. As more taxpayers are squeezed, school districts are faced with budget caps.  The result can mean teacher layoffs and larger class sizes.

Districts may turn to private funding resources as unconventional ways to raise money.  Some tap into the power of advertising – selling sponsorships to fund everything from scoreboards on athletic fields to computer equipment in science labs. Districts also allow advertising on buses and vending machines to generate revenue. The return on taxpayers’ investment in public education depends on how schools perform and their level of consistency.

Wealthy philanthropists and celebrities invest in public education, but that comes with criticism as no good deed goes unpunished.  Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million to the Newark, New Jersey public school district and $120 million in San Francisco.  Critics said too much went to administrative and consulting fees.  The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation committed more than $28 billion since 1997. Pop singer Taylor Swift donated $50,000 in profit from her song “Welcome to New York” to the NYC public schools system.  Critics said it was the equivalent of throwing a quarter at a homeless person. Will. I. Am, Tyrese, and Kevin Johnson have also given back. Former NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s Pencil.org group matches corporate donors with schools that need funding for programs.