Unfair school funding

About a year ago, I rad an article in the New York Times about the divide in parental donations in a suburban Los Angeles school district. Malibu, which is overwhelmingly affluent was taking in a lot more money during PTA fundraisers than Santa Monica, where nearly a third of the students qualify as low income. California schools are strapped, so PTA fund raisers are not just a matter of enrichment, but are used to cover classroom basics as well. The superintendent of the district proposed an equal distribution of PTA money over the 11 schools in the district. This made the Malibu parents so angry that they pushed to secede from the district and create their own school system just for Malibu students. They wanted the money from their PTA fundraisers to go exclusively to their children.

One quote in the article struck me. Craig Foster, school board member from Malibu, said that the current system gives parents “the opportunity to put your money where your heart is.” The former managing director at Morgan Stanley and Credit Suisse went on to say. “It has to be an emotional appeal, and it has to be for the benefit of the donor.”

It seems sad to me that Mr. Foster’s heart doesn’t extend beyond his own backyard. Unless it benefits him directly, he doesn’t want to donate. I don’t know the man and have never met him, but whenever selfishness rears its ugly head, it makes the person seem petty and small.

The problem of PTAs and fundraising has been going on for a long time.

When our children were in elementary school, we naturally became involved in the PTA. I remember an early meeting, where the group was discussing fund-raisers. It seemed that the most popular fund raising for the organization involved sending children door to door with various sales items. There were candy bars, for which the PTA would pay more than retail price and then sell at double the price paid. There were magazine subscriptions with a similar higher than normal cost. And there were other ideas. I raised a question about what this really taught children about the marketplace. First of all, I said, “If it is a Parent Teacher Organization, why are we asking our children to raise the money for us?” Then I questioned whether these sales benefitted the fundraising companies more than they did the school. I proposed that I would prefer to make a donation than to buy a bunch of candy or magazines that I didn’t want.

Of course I ended up being on the fund raising committee.

Within a couple of years, we dropped all fund raising events except an annual school carnival. We took the total amount that was raised in the various events, divided by the number of students and knowing that not every family had funds to donate for every student and that some of the lower income families had more students than some of the more wealthy families, I and several other members of the committee doubled our donations so that those who could donate less would be covered. We exceeded our fund raising goal with a single letter of appeal.

I also made a few appeals to neighborhood donors who didn’t have students in school, but who were supportive of the school in subsequent years. But we eliminated the process of sending our children door to door to raise our donations.

I recalled that process as I was talking to my son yesterday about the elementary school where his son is enrolled. They participate in a program that calls for higher investment by parents. Parents are required to invest both time and financial resources in their children’s school. The extra funds, which average around $350 per student per year, provide a rich learning experience for the children and the parents can see the benefit of the investment. The problem is that this enhanced program is embraced by wealthier families and the children of less wealthy households tend to be enrolled in the normal program. This disparity creates a class system within the school.

Secondarily, the parents, when they get together, come up with a variety of ideas for raising the extra funds needed many of which involve sending their children door to door selling overpriced items.

I was proud of my son for recognizing these problems. I like to think that his awareness comes, in part, from our decision to enroll our children in an elementary school that had a diverse population and from our involvement in PTA activities when they were growing up. Probably he would have become an involved and compassionate parent anyway, but I like to feel a little bit of connection. I’m proud that he can see beyond his own family when it comes to supporting school programs.

the reality is that schools across the nation are underfunded. We don’t pay teachers what they are worth. We shortchange academic programs and overfund certain athletic programs. Not long ago I was visiting with a parent in a divorcing family that was trying to work out how to cover an estimated $10,000 per year in expenses for an elite athletic program in which their student participated. Their belief was that the investment would pay off in college scholarships. They might be right. But there are a lot of students who have abilities who will never get a shot at a program with that kind of costs.

When we underfund our schools, we create inequalities. and any inequality in school programs inhibits the role of education as the great equalizer of a society. Stratification of society into “haves” and “have nots” weakens the entire society.

Equity in school funding should be a fundamental right, not a cause that must be pursued by those who are politically active. Just as we shouldn’t be asking our children to raise money for our projects and programs, we shouldn’t ask them to pay for our mistakes in distribution.

It may be time for the traditional PTA to be replaced by some kind of wider foundation that supports all children. Clearly the issue has not been resolved with the passing of a generation. Fortunately, my grandchildren are even more bright and resourceful than their parents who themselves are more capable than their parents.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!