I got a rare opportunity to speak publicly today on the issue of ‘voluntary’ school donations. The issue is currently in the media because of the outrageous donations that Rathkeale College is seeking from its students’ parents. But really Rathkeale is simply one of the worst examples of a very widespread practice.
One of the things I find most frustrating about this issue is that the schools always claim that they are underfunded, and thus put moral pressure on parents to pay ‘donations’ so their children’s education does not suffer. Whether this claim is true or not is, however, mostly irrelevant when you consider how school donations are spent. One of the things all the researchers, education professionals, students and parents will agree on is that the best, most effective way to improve education is to invest in high quality teaching. How you do that is a question for political debate; merit pay vs better working conditions, national standards vs state-funded professional development etc, but the initial premise is widely accepted.
And the reality is that school donations do not go towards teachers. They might go into computer suites, swimming pools, ski-trips or a wide range of other things that look great on the glossy brochures but they don’t go towards teachers. (Incidentally the glossy brochures main task seems to be to secure more parents who are willing to fund the next lot of things to be featured in the next round of glossy brochures.) School principals and teachers know better, parents know better, I suspect school boards know better, but everyone is trapped in a cycle of fear; if we don’t compete for money children may miss out. It’s time we stepped back and asked whether that ‘donation’ is the best way to invest in our children’s education. It might turn out that it’s better spent as books at home for your children, food in the pantry or trips to see the grandparents, because if you give it to a school board, despite its best intentions, the money is unlikely to affect teaching and learning outcomes much.