Generally, yes. However, some foundations may exclude public agencies or individual schools from eligibility based on their giving priorities.
While public schools may apply for recognition of tax-exempt status under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC), this step is not required in order for such organizations to qualify for private foundation grants. Generally, the IRS treats public school districts as government instrumentalities. As such, they are exempt from federal income tax and eligible to receive tax-deductible contributions from individuals under Section 170(c)(1) of the IRC. Additionally, grants to such organizations, provided that they are for public or charitable purposes, are considered qualifying distributions for grantmaking private foundations.
Whether or not a specific grantmaker awards grants to public schools will depend on the funder's giving interests and limitations. When searching Foundation Directory Online for prospective funders, always check the Giving Limitations field in the applications section of the grantmaker's profile for information about any restrictions on funding.
How can a public school prove it is tax-exempt?
Since organizations without 501(c)(3) status will not have an IRS determination letter, grantmakers that do award grants to government agencies or instrumentalities may instead request written proof of an organization's status as a government entity. Examples of supporting documentation may include a letter from an authorized government official or a copy of the legislative act creating a government body.
The IRS also can supply a "government information letter" free of charge, which will describe government entity exemption from Federal income tax and cite applicable Internal Revenue Code sections pertaining to deductible contributions and income exclusion. Most organizations will accept the government affirmation letter as the substantiation they need. Government entities can request a government information letter from the IRS.