Streams

Walcott: Don't Penalize Parents Who Raise Money for Their Schools

Friday, June 22, 2012 - 06:37 PM

School budget cuts, rising expenses and grander ambitions for student activities have driven up the cost of sending a child to a New York City public school. Earlier this spring, SchoolBook asked parents to tell us about their school-related spending. Journalists followed up on the hundreds of responses we received, resulting in a series of reports on SchoolBook, in The New York Times and on WNYC. You can find previous reports here.

As the gap between middle-class and poor public schools widens because of differing results from parent fund-raising, the city's Department of Education is directing principals to a fund that was set up to deal with such disparities.

In 2002, the city inaugurated the Fund for Public Schools, a nonprofit organization designed, in part, to support needy schools. Over the past 10 years, the fund has raised more than $285 million for research, pilot programs, student scholarships, art and literacy grants, and new schools.

The fund has also provided more than 250 library grants of up to $10,000 each, assisted 70 schools by upgrading their art spaces with grants of up to $20,000 each, and begun an alumni initiative, collecting around $400,000, in part by signing up 4,000 alumni and friends.

And it has overseen the $1 million gift in 2009 from the fashion designer Georgio Armani, using it to help set up arts-based enrichment initiatives for students in the Bronx.

In an interview this spring —-- before SchoolBook, The New York Times and WNYC began running a series of reports on parents' contributions to public schools —-- Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott was asked about the growing disparity in fund-raising between wealthier and poorer public schools.

The reports found that the city’s most affluent PTA's were collecting more than a million dollars a year, while the poorest in the Bronx were bringing in barely anything, and that at least some public school parents —-- including a former PTA fund-raiser at a top-earning Brooklyn elementary school —-- said the frenetic pace with which parents at some schools raised money was increasingly problematic, exacerbating economic disparities between the city’s 1,700 schools and sending the wrong message to lawmakers in Albany.

Mr. Walcott, in the interview in April to mark his one-year anniversary as chancellor, had said the Fund for Public Schools could be an equalizer.

“It helps not necessarily level it to a level playing field,” Mr. Walcott said of the fund’s work in the city’s poorest schools. "But at least it gives them a leg up.”

He acknowledged the disparities. “The reality is that you have some schools that are raising a lot of money,” he said. And he has no intention of discouraging that, he said.

“I don’t want to penalize those that have the ability to raise money to support their schools,” Mr. Walcott said.

The C.E.O. of the Fund for Public Schools, Julia Bator, said it helped individual PTA;s by providing a fund-raising tool kit for them and managing their donations by serving as a kind of bank for them. “It’s a heavy lift to set up your own 501C-3,” she said, referring to the nonprofit groups that many PTA's form.

The city has also moved to help students in poorer schools through its budgeting process. In 2007, it introduced a “fair funding formula,” which was put in place to allow schools with higher-needs students to receive more money.

But because of state budget cuts, as of this school year the city had yet to fully implement the formula. The year it was instituted, the city’s Independent Budget Office reported that students identified as needy received an average of $217 more than what they would have received under the old system.

The PTA at the Anderson School, a gifted-and-talented school on the Upper West Side, augments the spending of its principal by more than $1,000 per student.

Here is a transcript of Mr. Walcott's full response to the question about fund-raising disparities, raised in that April interview:

As long as they're meeting their mandates, then we have to make sure that they do it within the mandates that are set for them. Beyond that the disparity issue is something that's out there, but I'm not going to restrict groups from raising money. I think the one thing I'll say is that we have a resource through the Fund for Public Schools that can provide assistance to schools as far as how to identify local community organizations, local businesses, to help them in raising moneys in their neighborhoods as well. And so we've been utilizing the Fund for Public Schools to give some T.A. to principals and helping different schools organize. So you know 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.

But 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. To make them smarter and aware of how to do that so they're able to enhance what's taking place in their schools. So as long as they're meeting their legal or chancellor requirements, then I'm fine with that. I think our goal is to provide the appropriate support.

The reality is, you have some schools that are raising a lot of money, and so how do we then support those that are not doing that? And so for example there was a principal here last week and I was talking to him about his P.A. and his school and then I introduced him to the Fund for Public Schools on how they can serve as a conduit if they identify local businesses or give some feedback or suggestions. So if there are ways we can do that, then it not exacerbates the disparity, it helps not necessarily level it to a level playing field, but at least it gives them a leg up and more than they had before when they started.

Anna M. Phillips contributed reporting.

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