Linda McNeill is a professor at Rice University who writes about funding, testing, and other education policy issues.

In this post, she describes her reaction when she received a beautiful invitation to a dinner to raise money for charter schools in Houston. The invitation came from one of Houston’s existing very well-funded charter chains. (Coincidentally, IDEA just announced plans to expand in Houston, as well as a plan to saturate El Paso with 20 IDEA charters).

She writes, in part:

The thick envelope gave a hint of elegance inside. An invitation. Colorful graphics, fine card stock, strategically placed photographs, “bold face” names inside the folds of this multi-layered, professionally crafted solicitation. A separate card, two-sided on high quality card stock, lists in bold contrasting colors the details of the events. Also inside, a return envelope for the enclosed commitment card suggesting “underwriting opportunities” from a mere $500 to levels of $50,000 and $100,000.

An invitation to a museum gala or symphony fund-raiser? A call to join the restoration of our Harvey-flooded opera house? The funding categories would seem to so suggest.

No, this was an invitation to a fund-raiser for a corporate charter school chain. A private company that has added “public” to its name because it is one of the corporate entities that takes taxpayer dollars (the “public” part) to fund its schools.

My first inclination was curiosity: who are these people? I looked over the names of the funders already listed on the invitation: the usual anti-public school billionaires, some names of really good people who should know better, and some people I didn’t recognize who probably have been sold on the idea that only by contributing to these charter chains can they save the city’s poor, minority children.

My next reaction was anger. This invitation – fancy graphics, elegant card stock, thick white envelopes – was expensive! Each one must have cost several dollars, even accounting for a bulk order discount. I turned each piece over to try to find the printing company that produced it. No designer or graphics company attributed, but a line that caught my eye: contact the charter chain’s “manager of special events” for more information. Really??

Manager of Special Events! I know of no public school, no neighborhood school, that has a manager of special events – much less the budget to hire one. But they all could use that $100,000 for a long list of needs after years of underfunding.

Then I immediately knew the source of my anger: the inequity of it all. These charter chains are privately incorporated, but they not only take our tax dollars out of our public schools – the public’s schools, but they may be using our tax dollars to pay their special events managers and printers to advertise against our public schools! Our tax dollars enable their “marketing” in competition with the public’s own schools. I took the invitation to a high-quality stationery store to ask if they had produced it and what it might have cost. The woman said they hadn’t produced it but confirmed it was definitely expensive and each would have cost “several dollars” even if, as I had suspected, several hundred or thousand had been printed and mailed out (yes, add the mailing costs). And even if the printing had been donated by an individual or corporation, those dollars would still have been taken from our public schools as a tax-deductible, “charitable” contribution.

So the first inequity is that all of these “contributions,” from the modest $500 (mere seat at luncheon) to the ‘naming rights’ (I’m not making this up!) for donors giving $100,000, all of these dollars end up subtracted from the public treasury.

The second inequity: the costs of those invitations. I suddenly realized each one must cost more than many of our teachers have for school supplies and instructional materials on any given day. So I asked some teachers. A 7th-grade biology teacher new to her current school was hopeful: “They say I’ll have the supplies I need for labs and we’ve ready sent in the order for frogs for the kids to dissect, so we’ll see. So far, so good.”

The next answer was less optimistic: “I’m told I have to require every student to bring a ream of copier paper; when that runs out we won’t get any more, so I’m trying to be careful to plan ahead.” From a high school teacher: “No, we don’t get to buy paperbacks for our classrooms. We have some on hand but if we want to assign other titles, the kids have to buy their own. If they can’t afford it, I see if I have an extra copy at home or maybe I just buy it for them.”