How many bake sales does it take to save a teacher's job? For decades, public-school parents have organized such fundraising events to cover the costs of field trips, sports equipment and other frills that enrich their children's education. Yet now, as recession clouds hang ever lower and state budgets tighten, schools and districts are increasingly asking adults to help pay for essentials. Parents are under pressure to bring in big bucks for supplies, technology and even, in some cases, staff salaries. That's a lot of sugar cookies.
Parent-teacher associations (PTAs), school foundations, independent community groups the methods may vary, but the goal remains the same: to prevent public schools from losing more staff and services. In New York City, some public-school parents recently came under fire for paying school aides out of their own pockets. The local teachers union filed a complaint, alleging that the positions were taking away jobs from higher-paid unionized aides. It's all a new twist on an old story. "School spending has been augmented by private sources for a long time," says Andy Rotherham, a co-founder of Education Sector, a Washington think tank. "But this money is now being looked at as a way to restore more core services that are being cut, rather than just to provide extra things."
For many parents, the PTA with its name recognition and history of reliable annual fundraisers is the natural first line of defense. In Castro Valley, Calif., for example, Proctor Elementary's PTA raised $17,000 during the 2008-09 school year through a walkathon, an auction and a $60-per-child suggested contribution to the PTA. The group was able to put that money toward the salary of a paraprofessional whose job was endangered. "The state is supposed to provide the black-and-white essentials of a good education, and the PTA fills in the color," says California state PTA president Jo Loss, whose schools have had to deal with a round of budget cuts that might leave more than 17,000 teachers out of work this fall. "But our state has increasingly fallen far short of providing even the essentials. So PTAs are having to step in."
Still, many parent-teacher organizations are uncomfortable with the idea of getting so heavily involved with such vital financial issues. The National PTA, which claims 26,000 chapters, discourages its members from going too far. "Parents should not have to raise money to underwrite staff salaries," says Charles J. Saylors, president of the National PTA. "That's the responsibility of the local government. They should not be balancing their budgets on the backs of parents."
Sure, but try telling that to a parent who fears that her child's teacher is going to get downsized. Suny Bruun, a mother of two in Winner, S.D., this summer bypassed the PTA and formed an independent parent fundraising group, Keeping Intelligent Determined Students (KIDS). Its goal is not only to raise money for the local school district but also to lower the amount of a $500,000 tax hike the town proposed to cover teacher and aide salaries. In early July, a radiothon raised $42,066 through donations ranging from $10 to $2,000, and the group has planned both an online sale and a concession stand for later in the summer. Bruun has even made overtures to a local man who in May became the winner of the ninth-largest Powerball jackpot ever: $232 million. "I sent him a letter," says Bruun. "It has gone unanswered."
The nation's average teacher salary, as of the 2006-07 school year, was $51,000 and that's not including benefits so most parents are not under the illusion that they will be able to bake-sale their way into saving multiple jobs. Which is why some communities establish educational foundations. These nonprofits, typically staffed by volunteers, alumni and retired staff, take the university approach to fundraising: direct calls, mailings and appeals to former students, local businesses and even current staff. "This approach is different from relying on the PTA booster-club mentality," says Jim Collogan, president of the National School Foundation Association. "This says, We're going to get serious, find our alumni and talk to them about how to give back."
So far this year, a foundation supporting Oregon's Lake Oswego school district has raised $1.6 million solely to fund teachers. The bulk of the fundraising was done through direct appeals phone calls, e-mails, snail mail and all money is spread out equally over the area's 13 schools through an agreement between the foundation and the district. Lake Oswego, an affluent bedroom community outside Portland, is able to leverage the wealth of its parents to help its 13 schools. "Our parents are willing to step up and provide money," says Bill Korach, Lake Oswego district superintendent. "But we are just trying to survive here. We're not doing any school maintenance. We're not buying any additional textbooks." And this, he says, comes after the district had to cut 20 teaching positions.
Yet even Korach will admit that the one major issue with relying on parents to help pay for school essentials is that itexacerbates inequities that already exist between well-off school districtsand those with lesser means. "We're not naive," he says. "You couldn't do what we do in other communities."
Randi Weingarten, longtime head of the New York City teachers union and now president of the American Federation of Teachers, has long seen schools beg parents for additional help, handing out lists of classroom supplies that need to be purchased. To ramp that up would only "punctuate the haves and have-nots," says Weingarten. "It leaves the nagging feeling of, What does that mean for kids whose parents aren't able to fundraise like that?"