A recent article
in the New York Times about public elementary school PTA’s raising over $1 million to fund what parents used to consider the "basics" of a good public education - computers, dictionaries, desk chairs - touched a nerve with some San Francisco parents. Although the article was talking about NYC schools, it could just as easily have been describing the situation in San Francisco. SF resident Carol Kocivar, a longtime PTA parent and now president of the California State PTA (CAPTA) remembers when her children were in elementary school in the 1980s, their school fundraised $1,000. Last year, that school raised $450,000.
Can parents really pick up the slack in public education funding, and should they have to?
Traditionally, PTAs have been more about family enrichment programs than raising money. The National PTA
says it “provides parents and families with a powerful voice to speak on behalf of every child while providing the best tools for parents to help their children be successful students.” Among the programs PTAs at various SF elementary schools sponsor are back to school events, new family welcome events, speakers on topics like bullying or appropriate ways to help children with schoolwork, community-building events like school beautification, a school wide math or science or literacy night, or a talent show or musical performance.
PTAs are supposed to follow a “three to one” rule for fundraising - hold three non fundraising programs for every fundraising event. Fundraisers might include a raffle, a silent auction, or a “thon” - walkathon, readathon, spellathon. Some schools also send out a cash appeal letter asking parents to just write a check. Each of these efforts drive more revenue than the old fashioned bake sale or car wash fundraising of 20 or 30 years ago.
The NY Times article also described the discrepancy between schools with wealthier parents who can support such mega fundraising, and those in poorer communities, where little to no money is raised; that situation, too, exists in San Francisco. Public schools with many middle class SF families fundraise half a million dollars a year to pay for both basics and enrichments, while other low income schools, which may still be using the bake sale/car wash fundraising model, can barely raise a few hundred to pay for some basics and no enrichment.
This inequity troubles many parents. Some have suggested that all city PTAs should pool the funds they raise and redistribute the money to every school on a per pupil basis, so that every child would benefit, not just those lucky enough to attend a school with a wealthier population. Those objecting to that idea believe that parents should be able to give to their own child's school and know that the money will be used at that site; some think families would give less if they knew their donation was being spread citywide instead of being spent at their own school.
A new fundraising scheme wants to work around these conflicts. Todd David is the founder and executive director of edMatchsf
, a non-profit seeking additional funding for public schools from corporations and private philanthropists, who are asked to “match” money raised by parents at local schools. He explains,
"When my oldest child started kindergarten in 2007, it became clear to me that California had abdicated its responsibility to adequately fund education. With the paltry funding coming from the state, too many schools had to literally choose between whether to pay for 'paper and pencils' or teachers.
"Certain schools' parent communities were raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to help alleviate the state budget cuts. I saw the need for a program that would leverage the fundraising success at these schools, that would not only help all schools fill the funding gap left by the state, but would also share best practices to ensure that the money raised would be used efficiently to further students outcomes.
"Our ultimate goal is to "match" the money raised by parents at every SF public school (approximately $6 million) and distribute that "matched pot" on a per student basis to all 112 public schools."
For the 2012-13 school year, edMatch is starting with a more modest goal - to raise $600,000 to distribute on a per student basis to every public middle school (schools that consist only of grades 6-8.) If successful, each middle school will receive $50 per student.
Some parents worry that the urgency around fund raising takes a toll on the traditional PTA focus of helping parents support their child's academic success. Carol Kocivar from CAPTA says that parents get burned out sooner than they used to, and with fund raising activities taking so much of their volunteer time, some may be volunteering less for PTA-coordinated activities like one on one tutoring for struggling students, or helping in the school library or in classrooms.
Still, it is hard to fault parents who have watched funding for K-12 education in California drop precipitously
over the past 5 years. The latest budget forecast is even grimmer; the state budget passed by the legislature this month is based on the assumption that Gov. Jerry Brown's tax plan
(one of two proposed for the ballot) will be approved at the November election. But the Associated Press reports
If voters reject the tax increases, the budget includes about $6 billion in automatic spending cuts, almost all of which would fall on K-12 schools. The contingency plan would shorten the public school year by as much as three weeks.
Already LAUSD schools plan
to take up to 10 furlough days next year to save money; in San Francisco, public schools could be hit with a potential loss of $23 million
Kocivar points out that no matter how vigorous the fundraising efforts at public schools, it will never be enough. She says, “at a time when our schools are struggling, the local community trying to help is a good idea, but it won't solve the problem of the state underfunding our schools.” Every year, the PTA surveys parents to find out which issues in education are most important to them, and according to Kocivar, in 2010-11, over 90% said ‘adequate funding.’ “Parents have seen cuts to art, music, librarians, and counselors, and class size growth, and they want to restore all of those things,” she says.
Now CAPTA is supporting what may arguably be the biggest education fundraising venture ever. The organization has thrown its weight behind the Our Children Our Future ballot measure
, an alternative to Gov. Brown's tax increase, which would raise $10 billion annually for public education in California. With the state ranked 47th nationally in per pupil spending, the largest class sizes in the country, and more than $20 billion cut from education in just the past 3 years alone (and a 13.8% drop
in funding since 2007-08), more support for our public schools can't come soon enough.
Despite the dire financial straits in which public education finds itself in California, parent advocates still try to focus on providing programs, not raising money. CAPTA has an exciting new program called School Smarts Parent Academy
, a 7 week course to foster parent engagement in public education currently operating in 23 schools in 4 school districts. Parents learn about the importance of being involved in their children's education, as well as how to understand the education system, advocate for quality school programs, and communicate effectively. Offered in English, Spanish and Cantonese, the program is especially effective for parents who may be unfamiliar with the US education system, who do not speak English as their first language, or who did not finish high school themselves. As Kocivar says, "This is one of the most exciting projects PTA is involved in because parent engagement is at the heart of PTA."
Todd David from edMatch looks forward to a time when his organization's contributions will be spent on enrichment, not basics. He says,
"Given the current lack of funding, I understand that edMatch's distribution might be needed to buy paper and pencils. My hope is that in the future, schools will be able to use the edMatch distribution to do something wonderfully creative, an opportunity to spark children's interest in a way that wouldn't otherwise be affordable. Enrichment can be so many different things in different communities - technology, the arts, organic food - communities should only be limited by their collective imagination."
Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at PEACHSF.org. Follow her on Twitter @nestwife.