Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Should Parents Be Expected to Donate to a Public School?

November 27, 2016 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment, Relationships

Continuing my series of responses to the New York Times’, The Ethicist, without imposing values, here is my take on today’s post, “Should Parents Be Expected to Donate to a Public School?


Our granddaughter is in kindergarten at a highly ranked elementary school: Test scores average in the top 1 percent of the schools in the state. Only 1.2 percent of the students are on a free or low-cost lunch. A sheet is passed out to parents of all students in the school from the parents’ organization at the beginning of the school year. Last year they pressured parents to donate $600 per year per student enrolled. This year the amount has been raised to $1,000. The parents’ organization keeps the books and clearly knows which parents have paid in full and which have not.

We believe this effort violates the principle of free public education. The quantity of fund-raising offends our sense of fairness. This school would be enormously advantaged even without the addition of the money raised by the parents’ group for extra services and programs.

For a number of reasons — our involvement with the school, our uncertainty about the legality of this pressure for donations and our desire not to risk repercussions from the parents’ organization — we do not want to confront the issue directly. Instead we are writing to you for advice.

Is this level of pressure for large contributions to the operation of a public school unethical? If so, how can something be done about it without bringing unwanted attention to a particular student? Name Withheld

My response: Here’s the most important part of your message: “we do not want to confront the issue directly.” By “the issue” I can only conclude you mean “other people.”

The issue of people asking you for money is never going to go away. Anyone asking will always feel justified in asking and you won’t always feel you should give, so the conflict you see will always come up, though the details of the conflict will differ from case to case.

I suggest that the issue is how to handle the situation, which is not about the details, but your ability to create as agreeable a resolution as possible. This is a question of skill, not ethics. I recommend improving your skills in negotiation, influence, leadership, and so on over talking about abstract concepts like ethics, which not everyone agrees on anyway.

Which do you prefer—reaching agreement on the issue or a newspaper columnist giving you permission to label their behavior?

The New York Times Response:

Public education is paid for out of taxes, not from direct contributions from parents. The government should treat children equally, whether rich or poor. That’s not a duty for private people and organizations, though. They’re allowed to raise funds and to choose a school for their special benefaction.

Fund-raising must not be coercive, of course, and you raise the issue of some sort of repercussions from the parents’ organization. Yet you don’t indicate that these pressures would go beyond the usual forces of disappointed social expectations, the duck-nibbles of unextended dinner invitations — nothing that approaches the level of coercion.

What about fairness? All children deserve a fair shot at a decent education, let’s agree. Are inequalities among schools that aren’t a result of unequal government provision a threat to this ideal? Only if inequalities between private and public schools are. So it would be wrong for parents’ groups to bolster a public school by providing resources beyond what’s available to all children in the system only if it were also wrong to send children to private schools.

You may disagree. You may think something like this: Because the school is public, it has a special duty not to compound the unequal distribution of educational advantage. (This school, with its affluent catchment area and tax base, is way ahead of the game already, you point out.) While the parents’ group is private, it’s acting in and through the public school. The result can look like philanthropy for the privileged.

I grant that there’s reason for concern here. For one thing, parents who have enriched their local school through their donations may feel less of an incentive to advocate for public education at the state level. And these parental fund-raising efforts do increase inequality (if only modestly, in relation to the some $600 billion each year that K-12 public education costs).

Yet even affluent public schools have fewer resources than many private schools. Raising money from parents and other outside donors allows them to do a better job than they otherwise would, resulting in better educations for some children in the public system than for others. Such disparities can be mitigated; some parent-teacher associations have, commendably, adopted a sister school from a less-affluent neighborhood, for example. But inevitably, we confront a trade-off between increasing fairness and increasing the number of people who get a worthwhile good; in this case, a better education.

Which returns us to the point with which I started. Certain values vary with roles: We expect an umpire to be a neutral party on the playing field, while Mom and Dad take a rooting interest in their kid. Government officials ought to be concerned with fairness and impartiality; it’s right, and inevitable, that parents, and parents’ associations, want to do the best they can for their children.

My grandson is in the military. At this point, I would consider him career military. He is enlisted and over the last 10 years has risen up through the ranks and received many citations and awards. Over the last several years he has been stationed overseas.

Recently he married for the fourth time, three weeks after his divorce from his third wife was final. The first two marriages were to United States citizens. The third was to a noncitizen and lasted about five years. He is scheduled to return to the States by the end of 2016. His current wife is not a United States citizen. There are no children from any of the marriages, although his third wife had a son, and my grandson helped support the child.

I’ve met all three previous wives and was happy that the third marriage seemed to be working out. I believe that the trouble with all three marriages began when he received an overseas deployment away from the marital home. His third marriage broke up when he was deployed to Afghanistan.

After I heard of the last divorce, I talked with him about taking stock and making good, well-thought-out decisions that would serve him for a lifetime. A couple of weeks later I received a wedding picture with him and an unknown woman in a wedding dress. Obviously, he didn’t heed my advice.

I’m troubled about his life choices and have cautioned him about being too impulsive. He is planning a trip to the States with his new wife and wants to visit. One part of me wants to say: I’ve met all the wives I want to meet for a while. I feel like a child of a single parent whose mother or father keeps bringing a new daddy or mommy home. Of course, on the other hand, I love my grandson, and I don’t want him to feel abandoned. But don’t people bear responsibility for how their actions cause others to feel? And, shouldn’t they recognize that responsibility? He says he accepts the way I feel about the recent marriage and included a smiley face, for Pete’s sake, in a recent email.

My concern is: What is it about my grandson that makes him a serial marriager? He doesn’t seem to recognize that this pattern of behavior is a problem (is it?) and therefore isn’t going to seek therapy.

My daughter (his mother) says that she isn’t going to spend any energy worrying about this as she can do nothing to change it. She says he is an adult and old enough to make his own decisions.

My grandson’s behavior is so far out of my pay grade (excuse the government term) that I’m having a very hard time knowing how to react.

Am I so old now that my value system is out of date? Name Withheld

My response: If you don’t like his choices, you don’t have to see him. You can do what you want. You don’t need anyone’s permission.

You know him better than we do, but in general, if you respond to behavior you dislike by rewarding him, your reward will motivate him to continue the behavior. If you stop rewarding him, all else being equal, you’ll decrease that motivation.

As for what motivates him, he knows better than anyone else. If you want to find out, I expect talking to him will answer you better than any other tactic. Maybe you could talk to someone who works with people who behave like him in situations like him.

You may find empathy and listening bring you understanding and closeness more than suggesting he get therapy and worrying. If you feel bad, who has the problem?

The New York Times Response:

The psychological toll on our servicemen and women of regular deployments abroad can be substantial. Still, many military marriages do just fine. Your grandson’s being a “serial marriager” (I like that phrase!) is a reflection of his own character, then, not just of his career. To answer your final question first: Your thinking that three failed marriages is a problem is not a matter of an out-of-date value system; it’s just a recognition of the point of marriage. Surely, he didn’t start on any of the marriages with the intention that it should end in a few years. (I leave aside the question of whether the failure lay in the ending of these marriages or in the starting of them.) Dr. Johnson said that remarriage represents the “triumph of hope over experience.” Neither seems to have helped your grandson much. It’s only natural that someone who loves him would want him to do better.

You’re essentially asking if you should stop worrying about him. You’ve noticed that worrying and expressing your worries hasn’t had much impact on his behavior. You might think you were just wasting your time. But if you care about someone, you’re bound to care if his life isn’t going well; you don’t have a choice about it. The only thing that would justify feeling differently would be being convinced that these multiple marriages aren’t a problem. And I can’t help you with that, because, like you, I think they are.

Marriage is a social institution; it isn’t just a contract between two people. This means that its failure can and often does come with broader costs, of the kind you seem to be paying. Is this an ethical issue? Yes, in the classical sense. For Aristotle, notably, ethics wasn’t confined to narrow moral quandaries; it had to do with what sort of person we should be, with what kind of life we should lead. In this respect, your grandson, too, is paying a cost. If your lifelong commitments regularly come with an expiration date, you’re probably not leading the best life you could.

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