Public schools that receive low grades experience huge drop in donations
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Crucial donations from parents and local businesses plummet when public schools receive poor letter grades, and the effect is most pronounced in institutions serving low-income students, according to a new University of Florida study.
“In most cases, receiving a high grade for school performance does not increase a school’s level of voluntary contributions, but getting a low grade results in considerable reduction in its private financial support,” said Larry Kenny, a UF economics professor whose study with David Figlio was published online last week in the Journal of Public Economics. “Indeed, we estimate that a school receiving a grade of ‘F’ will experience a drop in contributions of two-thirds or more.”
The research, which analyzes 2003-04 survey data on contributions to Florida elementary and middle schools, is the first to quantify the effect of school performance grades on voluntary contributions, he said.
“What was particularly surprising in this study was the magnitude of the cutbacks; the numbers are very large,” he said. “These contributions help schools and losing this money lowers the quality of education.”
For schools receiving “F” grades, donations are 67 to 86 percent less than schools earning “C” grades, and “D” schools receive 28 to 45 percent smaller contributions than “C” schools, Kenny said. The average amount of money parents and local businesses donate to schools was approximately $37,000, which amounts to about $57 per student, he said.
The results come at a time when many states including Florida have reduced funding for public schools, he said.
Kenny said that the drop in donations for schools receiving a “D” or an “F” was greater in less affluent schools and in schools with fewer gifted students. Similarly there was a greater increase in donations in response to an “A” or a “B” in schools with more minorities.
One reason disadvantaged parents are more strongly influenced by a school’s grade may be that it is the only indication they have of its quality, Kenny said. Compared with their wealthier counterparts, poorer parents are less involved in school activities such as the PTA or other forms of parent-teacher contact, and so they are less aware of the school’s positive points, he said.
The best informed parents are usually those in affluent communities with fewer minorities and greater numbers of gifted children, Kenny said. Because affluent parents are more knowledgeable about their children’s school, their estimate of its effectiveness is less responsive to the new information provided by the school report card grade, he said.
“Because poor families are less likely to get involved in the schools, the grade is going to have a bigger effect on their perceptions than it would for families that know a lot more about what the school is doing,” he said.
Although the research was done in Florida, Kenny said he would expect the results to apply to schools nationwide. “The behavioral response to a letter grade should be the same anywhere,” he said.
Since 1999 Florida has assigned letter grades to its public schools based on how well they meet certain measures of school performance, such as test scores and in higher grades attendance and suspension rates.
In 2002 the state dramatically changed its grading system to take into account students’ yearly progress on tests, causing some schools to have better grades than they would have had under the previous system and other schools to have worse grades than would have otherwise occurred, he said.
Figlio, who worked with Kenny on the research, is a former UF economics professor who is now a professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University.