Who can afford to set aside enlisting their schoolchildren to hawk gift wrap for school fundraisers so parents can bring in over a $1 million through school PTAs? Parents at tony public schools on New York City’s Upper West Side, is who. That set of schools and their powerful parent fundraising arms became the subject of some debate earlier this month when the New York Times detailed the fundraising activities, and major cash hauls, of several public schools in New York City which have been able to supplement standard public school offerings with computers, chefs and fitness coaches, field trips, desks and projectors.
The conversation reignited a decades old debate about persistent educational inequities and the role parents play in their children’s schools. With public school budgets facing continual cuts, individual communities face even more pressure to help sustain their neighborhood schools. Parents in wealthy neighborhoods can afford to backfill those shortfalls but parents in poorer neighborhoods, some of whom are just scraping by themselves, can’t always dip into their own pockets to help furnish their schools with extra amenities or even the bare basics. In today’s public school economy, it’s still the case that the quality of the education students get depends on what their parents can pay for.
“It’s very disheartening that there are parents out there doing their very best to keep food on the table and lights and heat on in the house and are therefore unable to provide additional financial support to their schools, and because of that, their students don’t get what they need to get a fair opportunity to learn,” said Tina Dove, the director of the Opportunity to Learn Campaign, a progressive school reform campaign run by the Schott Foundation.
Parents’ fundraising power falls along bright class and race lines, and some worry that power fundraising can further institutionalize the already gnawing gap between the haves and the have nots, especially as schools look to their parent groups and independent school foundations to fund the sorts of school programs that are seen as extraneous in a testing-driven public school system. School districts across the country have long been locked in discussions about how to share the wealth that wealthy parents can bring in—some school districts mandate that a portion of the money parents raise at individual schools be shared among students across the district. Earlier this year New York City schools chief Dennis Walcott defended power parent fundraising, and said he had no interest in discouraging parent giving, the New York Times reported.
“We will have groups that are extremely adept in raising money and those that may not have the existing type of connections or the local businesses that may not be able to do that,” Walcott said. “I don’t want to penalize those that have the ability to raise money to support their schools.”
“If anything, I want to support schools that may not have that capacity for a host of different reasons,” Walcott said. Walcott supports New York City’s schools foundation, designed in part to help meet the needs of low-income schools. Yet even their many and generous $10,000 and $20,000 grants for upgrading library and arts spaces can’t match what wealthy schools can bring in. It’s a reflection not just of fundraising ability, but also parents’ social and political capital.
The fact remains that as states slash their annual school budgets, schools depend more and more on private giving, and parents are responding in kind. According to the Urban Institute’s National Center for Charitable Institutions, between 1997 and 2007 the number of nonprofit groups dedicated to supporting public education doubled to more than 19,000. As of 2007, those groups had raised $4.3 billion, Education Week reported. And while the $1.5 million annual fundraising from some wealthy New York City schools is outsized against other, more typical school fundraising.
The solution won’t come in cracking down on or trying to reign in powerful parent fundraisers, say even those who advocate for students in poorer communities.
“It brings the equity conversation to the forefront,” said Zakiyah Ansari, a parent and education activist with Alliance for Quality Education, a progressive community-based education organizing group in New York. “The fact that some communities don’t have to worry about their schools because they can raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for two art teachers, I don’t have a problem with that.”
“But meanwhile there’s kids in the South Bronx or East New York and other areas of the city where there’s not even one art teacher and fundraising for that is not even an option—that’s where we need to be focusing.”
In the neighborhoods where need is the greatest, AQE can’t look to parents to open their wallets as a way to give their kids the best education they can, Ansari said. Organizers have to focus on leveraging parent power in different ways, and toward different ends. Ansari said that AQE has organized parents to address educational inequities, and that a big part of their work was to pressure Albany to look at funding schools adequately.
“One of the things I want people of color and parents to know is: you don’t have to accept this,” she said. “I’ve been guilty of this myself. When you see budget cuts happening, we know which community is going to cut first. You innately know it’s going to be a District 9, 23, 19 that’s going to get hit the hardest.”
“Part of the thing to address inequity is educating parents to know that there are parts of the city raising $1 million for their schools. And it’s not about saying that’s not fair. It’s about saying: why isn’t the city, why isn’t the state funding our schools.”