School Results Matter for Voluntary Financial Donations to Schools

The negative consequences of publishing school results and league tables are now well-known and have been documented in many research studies. They include narrowing the curriculum, turning classrooms into testing factories, rorting of school results, high quality teachers leaving schools with low results, and increasing social segregation between schools.

New research has revealed another negative consequence for schools with low average results – voluntary financial donations by parents decline when a school gets lower results.

A study published in the Journal of Public Economics last year shows that schools whose results decline experience large drops in private financial support from parents. It also found that donations to schools serving poor or minority families are more sensitive to school results than donations to schools serving more affluent families.

The study used a change in Florida’s school grading system to analyse the responsiveness of parent financial contributions to changes in school grades for elementary and middle schools. Beginning in 1999, Florida assigned letter grades to its public schools on the basis of measured school performance. In 2002, the school grading system was significantly changed to include results from more Year levels and individual student progress from year-to-year.

This change generated an information “shock” that caused 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. About 50 per cent of elementary schools received a higher or lower grade under the new system.

The study estimated the impact of this change in grades on the level of parent donations to schools, taking into account school grades and donations prior to the change. It found that receiving a lower grade is associated with considerable reductions in private financial support for the school. Donations in schools that were given an “F” grade – the lowest in the state’s system – were 67 to 86 per cent lower than in schools that got a “C” grade. Donations to schools that got a “D” grade were 28 to 45 per cent lower than in schools that were graded “C”.

However, receipt of a higher grade did not increase the level of voluntary contributions to schools. The contributions received by schools graded “A” and “B” were not significantly different than those received by schools that received a “C” grade.

The study also found strong evidence that schools graded “D” and “F” and serving relatively low-income populations disproportionately experienced reduced donation levels following the grading system change. While high and low income “F” schools both experienced reduced donation levels, it was the schools serving the most disadvantaged students that had the largest reductions in donations. Among schools graded “D”, the reduction in donations occurred exclusively in the relatively low income schools.

Donations to schools with high proportions of minority students were strongly responsive to both low and high school grades. High-minority schools that got high grades of “A” or “B” received dramatically larger levels of donation than high-minority schools receiving a “C” grade while those that were given “D” and “F” grades received much lower levels of donations.

David Figlio & Lawrence Kenny 2009. Public Sector Performance Measurement and Stakeholder Support. Journal of Public Economics, 93 (9-10): 1069–1077.

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