A Parent Warns: A Focus on Fund-Raising Lets the Government Off the Hook

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Out of the 1,700 or so schools in the New York City public school system, there are now a handful with PTA budgets that have reached or are bulging toward the $1 million mark.

To put that $1 million figure in context, consider that more than two-thirds of New York City’s public school students come from lower-income households, qualifying for free or reduced lunch according to federal poverty guidelines.

These well-funded schools -- mostly elementary schools in high real estate neighborhoods, virtually roped off to those living outside the catchment zone -- are in the enviable position of being able to tap affluent parents and the surrounding community to finance the “extras” parents value and believe make a significant difference in our children’s educational lives.

These schools have been transformed into public-private partnerships, creating an elite corps of the most sought-after public schools in the city. But, to those of us, like me, who have led the charge in these schools and devoted endless hours to school fund-raising through annual appeals, auctions, galas and other events to build the moneymaking machines these PTAs have become, I now caution: our efforts may be detrimental to systemic improvement in our public schools across the city.

The phenomenon I call PTA Inc. -- the rise of corporate-like PTAs, effectively operating as large nonprofit organizations -- is relatively recent, emerging from a sense of anxiety and urgency as parents watched steep, sequential Department of Education budget cuts decimate our schools over the past five years.

At some point, the bake sales and lemonade stands were simply not enough, and armies of well-educated, well-connected parents went into action to mitigate what some felt was an unstoppable hemorrhaging of school funds.

It was borne of enlightened self-interest among a passionate group of committed public school parents. But what sprang from a need for survival has now uncomfortably morphed into survival of the fittest, aided in large part by the recent influx of affluent families who might once have chosen private school for their children, and who consider a $1,000 donation a tremendous bargain as compared to a $35,000 tuition.

Privatizing public schools through fervid outside fund-raising drives the already wide and seemingly irreparable gap between the haves and have-nots to unprecedented divides -- so much so that it is effectively institutionalizing inequity in the school system.

The basic calculus of fair student funding -- the portion of the school-based budget that is doled out on a standard formula and is spent at the discretion of the principal -- is completely distorted.

Traditionally, the justification for aggressive fund-raising in low-poverty schools has been that high-need schools receive public and private financial assistance that more affluent schools do not receive. The reality is that those supplementary funds are almost entirely earmarked for restricted uses tied to academic support services.

Title 1 funds will go to more test prep, especially in the current “test scores trump all” climate. Title 1 funds will not enable a principal to build and maintain an edible schoolyard garden or offer ballroom dancing.

But the problem of creating a chasm between the haves and have-nots -- and even, as we have seen recently, between the haves and have-a-lots -- through our PTAs goes much deeper than the blatant resource inequities.

The embarrassment of riches in the coffers of the elite public schools is inadvertently codifying harmful public policy. Upper middle-class parents have become the worst enablers of city and state governments that have repeatedly shortchanged our children, our teachers, our schools and our broader public school communities.

We, the more educated, more vocal and more politically connected public school parent population, have been allowing the government to relinquish its legislated responsibility for providing an adequate education to our children by masking the damage done by years of budget cuts.

We plug our funding gaps and make sure that the programs and services we value most are saved. We cover the costs of teacher salaries when permitted, allowing for smaller class sizes. We foot the bill for visual and performing arts and music collaborations (even though many of our children are already engaged in private arts and music instruction after school).

We contract with chess masters for chess instruction. We pay for teaching assistants for our youngest learners. We even hire wellness chefs to upgrade the quality and nutrition of our school food to address child-health issues (even if we have to beg children and families to consider buying school lunch, because this population, for whom food insecurity is not an issue, mostly brings lunch from home).

We do this because we know an enriched curriculum is critical to giving our children the well-rounded, robust educational experience they need to excel and succeed as future leaders, thinkers and innovators.

In the process, we are diverting our ample energy and commitment to react to bad policy rather than to prevent bad policy. The more the city and state cut, the more we dig into our own pockets (and encourage others to do the same) to mitigate the impact of the cuts. The more we successfully dig, the more we pave the way for new rounds of cuts that continue to strip away the things we have just worked to replace.

Our entrepreneurial activity and financial success is what is fueling our sense of purpose. The true mission gets muddled. At the end of the school year, we congratulate ourselves for reaching our insanely ambitious fund-raising goals and prepare to do it all over again next year.

Imagine if we had been channeling all that energy, passion and community organizing into forcing systemic change.

No one is going to stop working on behalf of their own child’s school. But perhaps we can start to ask the question of how much is too much. Perhaps we can see the value of starting to think about the one million public school students across the city.

If we adopt a sense of shared responsibility and a conviction that collaboration benefits us all, we can have a tremendous impact. Instead of hoarding our successes, we need to share best practices, especially practices for successfully engaging and involving parents in the life of the school.

Equally important, parent leaders need to choreograph a unified voice to represent what we, as parents, actually want and know is best for our children.

Ultimately, if we do not, our PTA Inc.s will only continue to widen the achievement gap, allow the testing and assessment industry to continue to remake our curriculum and the composition of our teaching work force, and grant us, the more affluent public school parents, the title of most misguided one percenters and perpetuators of social inequality in New York City, a title we have all worked way too hard to earn.