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Begging bowls out as budget cuts bite

United States

Cash-strapped authorities turn to philanthropists to plug shortfall, reports Stephen Phillips.

SWINGEING budget cuts are forcing US schools to mount aggressive and increasingly sophisticated fund-raising campaigns just to maintain basic services.

Some 27 per cent of America's 15,000 education authorities have established charity-like foundations to solicit donations from philanthropists and businesses, said Ray Clements of the American Association of Fundraising Counsel. Ninety per cent of the foundations have been established over the past five years.

Meanwhile, many more cash-strapped schools are racking their brains for lucrative alternatives to fetes. Ohio's Ravena high school recently bankrolled new PE facilities by selling people the right to have seats named after them.

"States are going through the most severe funding crisis since the Second World War," said Arnold Fege of the Public Education Network, a pressure group for greater state funding of schools.

In the hardest-hit state, California, lawmakers recently proposed pruning $5.4 billion (pound;3.4bn) from school budgets over the next 18 months to claw back a $34.6bn deficit. In the city of Oakland, schools must make do with $100 million less this year than last.

"As budget shortages impinge on schools, pressure grows on parents and the community to raise funds," said Fege.

Facing a cash crunch, New York education authority last September drafted in John F Kennedy's daughter, Caroline. She clinched her first deal as director of the Office of Strategic Partnership for Big Apple schools last month, convincing a cable television station, the History Channel, to pledge $1m for scholarships, textbooks and staff salaries.

But critics say such tax write-offs compound the public funding gap and let politicians off their responsibility to finance schools properly.

"Charitable donations are factored into reducing funding," said Fege.

Boston Latin, America's oldest state school, is four years into a five-year drive that has raised $35m towards the $50m needed for a new library, computers and extra curricular arts programmes. "Budget shortfalls in every city make fund-raising more urgent," explained David Weiner, executive director of Boston Latin School Association, its fund-raising arm.

But high-powered initiatives which tap wealthy old boys and girls highlight another problem with private funding. Poorer schools cannot count on such alumni for windfalls nor the involvement of parents.

"Fund-raising typically happens at more affluent schools, exacerbating inequities," said Fege.

A mini industry is springing up around parents' fund-raising with businesses piggybacking on their activities, he added.

"It's like a pyramid scheme; parents become sales people for companies selling products like wrapping paper - businesses sell them at wholesale and parents sell them for retail, collecting 5 per cent (for schools)."

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