As governments have slashed funding for public education, more and more school districts have turned to parents for help—and parents have responded to the call.

Case in point: In San Francisco, PTA budgets have increased by 800 percent over the past 10 years, according to an investigation I conducted with colleagues at the San Francisco Public Press.

A child buys tickets at the Halloween-Día de los Muertos fundraiser for Junipero Serra Elementary in San Francisco. © Tearsa Joy Hammock / San Francisco Public Press

It’s hard to fault parents for giving and raising money for their children’s schools. Their efforts build community, and they make struggling urban public schools more attractive to families who have the means to flee to private or suburban schools, if they want to.

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But our investigation revealed an unintended effect of their heroic efforts: Reliance on parent donations has widened inequities between rich and poor in San Francisco public schools. (Note: Parts of this essay are adapted from the Public Press article, “How Budget Cuts and PTA Fundraising Undermined Equity in San Francisco Public Schools.”)

Poverty has risen throughout the district—by about 10 percent since the start of the recession—but a handful of affluent schools were able to insulate themselves from years of budget cuts. In fact, the most affluent schools shrunk class sizes and were able expand academic programs, entirely with donations from parents. Meanwhile, the poor majority laid off staff, neglected libraries and computer labs, and quit buying essential supplies.

It’s a paradox: Private generosity for individual schools seems to hurt the school system as a whole, by breaking it into two pieces: one for the affluent and one for the poor. The ramifications go beyond schools, for a huge amount of research suggests that inequality hurts social trust and individual happiness.

This problem is not unique to San Francisco—many school districts have recognized that parent fundraising creates inequities between schools. In response, some districts have created centralized education foundations to redistribute funds to schools based on need. Others have prohibited PTAs from raising funds for personnel or professional development, one of the main ways rich schools get ahead of poor ones.

The Santa Monica-Malibu school district embraced both solutions in 2011. Today the district’s education foundation is the only way parents can donate money to support teachers and staff.

But the reform faced stiff resistance from parents. Affluent Malibu residents tried to break off from more working-class Santa Monica to create a separate school district. At least one Malibu school refused to share. And overall, the district’s PTAs are struggling to raise as much as in previous years.

Almost every San Francisco parent and educator I interviewed rejected the idea of pooling PTA funds and then redistributing them to the neediest schools. “I think you’d get a lot of parents pulling their kids out of public schools and putting them in private schools,” said one parent. “I’d pull my kids.”

This seems to lend support to the idea that humans are selfish by nature: Parents will support the school their own child attends, but might not be willing to support schools whose children look different from theirs. This tendency may also fuel anti-tax sentiment.

And yet these impulses are often at odds with our ideals. No parent or educator I interviewed was against equity in public schools, and even the most affluent wanted to do something to support poor and immigrant schools. Indeed, a great deal of research reveals that we are wired to share: Giving activates parts of the brain associated with pleasure, connection, and trust, releasing hormones that give us a nice warm afterglow. Moreover, evidence suggests that people who give enjoy better mental and physical health, indicating that this propensity to share may contain evolutionary advantages.

So what stops us from sharing resources?

As Princeton psychologist Susan Fiske once told me, “We care deeply about our in-groups. It’s only human to be comfortable with people who you think are like you.” But, she added, “The downside is that you’re then excluding people who are not in the in-group.” Studies of oxytocin, the so-called cuddle hormone, reveal how deeply rooted this tendency is in our biology: While oxytocin plays a role in bonding us to mothers, lovers, and friends, more and more experiments are finding that oxytocin also seems to play a role in excluding others from that bond.

In other words, our natural, adaptive tendency to give and share is moderated by group membership. This is especially true of immigrants, who, says GGSC founder Dacher Kelter, “have attributes that represent threats to hierarchies—they’re arriving with ambition and a desire to work hard, and that’s a threat to people at the top of hierarchies.” In fact, Fiske’s research finds that around the world, people are inclined to view immigrants with less warmth than other groups—which is an issue in urban centers like San Francisco, where at least 60 percent of public-school children are immigrants or the children of immigrants. That might make parents reluctant to donate money to public schools, if they fear (however subconsciously) that it’s going to children who are classified as outsiders.

But not necessarily. Research suggests that there are specific steps education leaders can take—from re-defining the in-group to telling a compelling story—that might incentivize parents to charitably support all schools, not just the ones attended by their own children. Here are five of them.

1. Redefine the in-group to include out-groups

A Central American indigenous dance troupe from UC Berkeley, leads a “friendship dance” at Junipero Serra’s he annual Halloween-Día de los Muertos celebration. Most of Junipero Serra’s students are immigrants or the children of immigrants, mainly from Latin America. So all gatherings are conducted in both Spanish and English, and parents in both groups make a conscious effort to build community across cultural and linguistic barriers, Principal Evelyn Cheung said. “These are not isolated groupings. They work together and they’ve built trust.” © Tearsa Joy Hammock / Public Press

When school leaders foster an ethic of “every school for itself”—by, for example, asking parents to raise money for their own academic programs—they drive wedges between the schools. This dynamic becomes much worse if the school district is heavily segregated across lines of class, race, and citizenship status, as is the case in San Francisco or in Santa Monica-Malibu.

What’s the solution? The trick, says Fiske and other psychologists, is to re-define the in-group so that it includes people with many differences.

Her research finds that the warmth we feel toward and from other groups “is completely predicted by cooperative or competitive intent.” For example, framing immigrant children as taking resources away from the native-born fosters a competitive mindset. But if education leaders present immigration has an essential part of American identity and describe programs like English-language instruction as an investment in the future, then giving might feel better.

Psychologists who study out-group prejudice say that two elements are especially crucial: leadership and contact between people.

“You can hold events that facilitate contact, even at a superficial level, like around food,” says GGSC director and UC Berkeley psychologist Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, an expert on intergroup relationships. “And another hugely important thing is to have a strong statement from the administration—in other words, the views and messages from authorities really matter. Because difficult intergroup situations are ambiguous, and in ambiguous situations people look to leaders to set the tone.”

2. Make it specific and personal

A great deal of research says that most people aren’t motivated to give by abstractions or statistics. They are motivated to give by specific human qualities, like faces. As Hooria Jazaieri points out in Greater Good, “This is what social scientists call the ‘identifiable victim effect’—the tendency to preferentially give to those we can identify with as people, rather than to those we perceive as being anonymous or vague.”

The key, says Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton, is to “increase the extent to which they are able to allocate their funds to specific recipients, rather than have their tax dollars pool into an amorphous fund that muddies the ultimate destination of their hard-earned money.” Indeed, a recent study published in The Journal of Neuroscience found that participants donated more money to orphans whose names were accompanied by their photograph—and brain scans suggest that seeing these faces induced more positive feeling.

As an example of this principle in action, Norton points to a non-profit called, which allows “anyone to find a specific classroom in a specific town with a specific need and donate directly to that classroom.” Making it specific and personal can help education leaders expand the in-group to include many groups of people, by building a sense of outsiders’ humanity.

3. Make it seem easy—and effective

University of Iowa social psychologist Daryl Cameron studies how to expand circles of empathy and compassion. “If people think that extending money to less affluent schools would be especially financially costly, emotionally tiresome, or unlikely to make a difference, then they may curb their compassion and disengage from the problem,” he says.

Cameron’s research says that compassion and empathy come naturally—but people may cognitively switch them off if they fear that their help will be useless. To encourage giving across school districts, parents and other prospective donors need to know their money will make a difference.

“Research suggests that showing people the benefits of their prosocial actions—in other words, showing that their efforts are not a drop in the bucket in relation to large-scale infrastructural problems—will make them more like to consistently help,” says Cameron.

This places a burden on needy schools and on school districts to show the difference a donation can make, and to demonstrate progress. But the results may be worth the extra effort. As Cameron says, “Changing people’s expectations about what compassion will be like—warm and rewarding, as opposed to intense and exhausting—may be one way to motivate change, especially when extreme out-group populations are involved.”

4. Tell a good story

Claremont Graduate University economist Paul J. Zak has carved out a unique scientific niche, exploring what happens in our brains as we spend or donate money. He has found that specific stories—ones with compelling characters who evolve in response to the challenges they face—activate the parts of our brain associated with social connection. Thus stories don’t just communicate information; they build empathy and community.

“By knowing someone’s story—where they came from, what they do, and who you might know in common—relationships with strangers are formed,” writes Zak in “How Stories Change the Brain.” This has obvious implications for building bridges between disparate social groups—and helps foster “the kinds of large-scale cooperation that builds massive bridges and sends humans into space.” Or, for that matter, keep urban school systems going.

Participants in Zak’s lab experiments watch a movie about a real boy named Ben, who is dying of cancer. Zak writes:

When people watch Ben’s story in the lab—and they both maintain attention to the story and release oxytocin—nearly all of these individuals donate a portion of their earnings from the experiment. They do this even though they don’t have to. This is surprising since this payment is to compensate them for an hour of their time and two needle sticks in their arms to obtain blood from which we measure chemical changes that come from their brains.

Note once again how this item, telling a good story, supports the other items on this list. Good stories help us to imagine what will work and what doesn’t; they are built on detail and specificity; and, most crucially, they can expand our sense of who belongs in our group.

5. Make it voluntary

People don’t like feeling forced to give. This is the greatest barrier to equitable distribution of both taxpayer and charitable funds.

And yet if school districts take these steps—expanding the in-group, making it personal and effective, and telling a good story—people should feel more motivated to voluntarily contribute to schools as a whole, not just their own child’s school. As Michael Norton and Elizabeth Dunn describe in “How to Make Giving Feel Good”:

In a study at the University of Oregon, researchers gave $100 to people, who then donated some of this money to a food bank—all from the inside of a scanner that assessed brain activity as they donated. Sometimes people could choose whether to give money, but sometimes the donations were mandatory, more like taxation. Even when donations were mandatory, giving to this worthwhile charity provoked activation in reward areas of the brain. But activation in these reward areas (along with self-reported satisfaction) was considerably greater when people chose to donate than when their prosocial spending was obligatory.

This is what the website tries to do, enlisting corporations and individuals to shift charity to the most disadvantaged San Francisco public schools. As San Francisco Board of Education president Rachel Norton told me, “EdMatch is a good system because it encourages people to voluntarily opt in, without penalizing parents who are working really hard.”

But EdMatch, while noble in intent, has struggled over five years to make an impact, raising only $100,000 last year—well short of its $6 million goal. So being voluntary and building “a pretty website” are not enough all by themselves, write Norton and Dunn. You also need to make a connection, and you need to regularly ask in a way that highlights moral choice. “Even subtle changes in the nature of a request can make all the difference,” they write.

In one study, a graduate student requested a bit of help and ended her plea by saying either, “It’s entirely your choice whether to help or not” or “I really think you should help out.” In both cases, the personal plea was highly effective. More than 97 percent of people agreed to help. Importantly, though, helpers felt happier if they had been reminded that helping was their choice rather than being told they should help.

These are lessons being applied by the Santa Monica-Malibu school district since centralizing its fundraising activities. Its education foundation launched a $4 million campaign last spring, and by the late fall of 2013, it had raised $2.4 million.

“Some of our wealthiest Santa Monica schools have the greatest participation,” Superintendent Sandra Lyon told me. “Indeed, across Santa Monica schools, some of the loudest opponents have become the biggest champions and are leading the charges at their schools.”

Lyon has seen a culture change in a district heavily divided by social class. “Schools are collaborating in ways they had not done before,” she said. “The inequity in schools had bothered many for years, and so there has been support for the notion that we are working to create a better education for all students.”

Karen Curtiss takes a donation at Junipero Serra Elementary's annual fundraiser. Though her family’s culture, language, education and income make them a minority at the predominately poor and Latino school, Curtiss said she feels intense loyalty to its community: “We believe in our family being part of a complete community, and not a socioeconomic bubble.” © Tearsa Joy Hammock / San Francisco Public Press

This is true in other districts that have moved to centralize parent fundraising and target needier schools with donations, like the Northern California city of Albany. Elementary school PTA vice president Kim Trutane said that the district-wide fundraising campaign has actually increased their capacity, contrary to her initial fears. “It’s led to more collaborative projects between the PTAs, and I think people just have a good feeling about making contributions that are split evenly among kids, which benefits the entire community.”

Ultimately, the problem of under-funded schools can’t be solved by charity—taxpayers and politicians need to make equity and education more of a priority. But these principles can be applied to winning political support for school funding as well. In the meantime, we can each take small step to sustain and improve American schools.

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