School budgets are so strapped these days that parent groups are not only battling to keep basics in the classroom, but some parents are even fighting one another. The superintendent in Albany, Calif., last fall suspended PTA-funded chess, music and art classes at two elementary schools after the parents at a third school complained they couldn't afford a similar curriculum. Why, the parents at Marin and Cornell elementary schools wondered, is the PTA at Ocean View trying to keep our kids down?
"It's kind of sad," says Edel Alon, an information-technology analyst and the Ocean View PTA president, who thinks private money in public schools can create inequality. "Parents have gotten into some pretty feisty arguments."
And more are surely on the way as schools across the country start leaning on parents to pay for essentials. Parents at a South Carolina school recently set aside $9,000 to cover copier costs. Meanwhile, at Salmon Bay School in Seattle, parents are covering half the salary for a full-time librarian and also subsidizing the salaries of a music and a physical-education teacher. Annual cost: $70,000.
"You now see parent groups paying for a substantial part of the budget," says Julian Weissglass, an education professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "But what happens to schools in poorer areas, where parents can't afford to do this? It's very troubling."
While equity often causes fights between PTAs, sometimes parent groups in socioeconomically diverse districts are willing to look out for each other. When the Bellingham, Wash., district cut a conservation program from its budget, the PTA at Carl Cozier whose leaders say it could have funded the field trip for its own students asked to spearhead a fundraising campaign so that every third-grader in the district's 14 elementary schools could attend. The district green-lighted the proposal, and PTAs throughout Bellingham joined forces to foot the $30,000 bill.
Such cooperation is unlikely to become the norm, however. "Education gets personal," says Jane Davies, a PTA leader at Seattle's Salmon Bay. "When there's talk that Linda from the library might get cut, it becomes, 'God, I'm not going to let that happen.' "
But wait shouldn't we applaud parents for this kind of generosity? One danger, education experts warn, is that school districts will get hooked on outside funding. (And if parents are willing to pay for the librarian, it makes it harder for a school to use staff reductions to try to get rid of an underperforming math teacher. Who needs a scuffle with the union?) Another problem with parent fundraising: turnover. A group could be bounteous one year and less inclined to give the next year, which compromises a district's long-term planning efforts. "It's not sustainable," says Nashville-based education consultant J.C. Bowman.
Plus, all those hours spent fundraising may limit parents' ability to assess teacher performance and fight for improved education, which was the original mission of the PTA. "You lose your objectivity to hold a school accountable," says Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform in Washington, D.C., "because you feel like you're a part of it."
Back in Albany, the district was eventually able to free up $19,000 to pay for art instruction at Ocean View, and the suspension was lifted on the parent-funded classes at the other schools. But Albany is anticipating an even smaller budget next year, and tension is still high. Alon says he and Jeannie Paulovich, head of the Marin elementary PTA, have not spoken since October. But there's at least a glimmer of hope. Says Paulovich: "If I had to borrow a popcorn machine from Edel, I would feel comfortable calling him up." It's enough to make you nostalgic for the days when PTAs were fretting about snacks instead of school payrolls.
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 7, 2011 issue of TIME.