After years of shrinking budgets, Washington area school districts are increasingly turning to moms and dads to pay for core classroom costs, raising questions about whether tapping family pocketbooks is a sustainable or fair way to fill a public funding gap.
Many educators are concerned that relying on such private largess exacerbates disparities between schools in affluent neighborhoods — where parents sometimes raise hundreds of thousands of dollars per year — and schools in poor neighborhoods, which often make do with public money.
“Let me tell you, I can’t even get $5 for dues on our side of town,” said parent leader Judith Moore at Smothers Elementary School, where three-quarters of students qualify for federally subsidized meals.
The parent group at the school, east of the Anacostia River, raises a few hundred dollars a year, and school administrators work to supplement their base line with extra funds from other outside sources.
Parent giving has a long history in the District, where fundraising at schools in wealthier neighborhoods has helped hire extra instructors to keep class sizes down and arts and music programming generous.
But across the country, parents are increasingly being asked to pitch in as schools struggle to maintain services in an era of cutbacks.
In the past year, state and federal government spending on public education has dropped 5 percent, or $25 billion, while localities have also wrestled with declining revenue, said Mike Griffith, a senior policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States.
Experts say there is no reliable estimate of how much parents have contributed nationally to backfill budget gaps. But many PTAs and other parent groups have expanded their reach beyond traditional “doughnuts with dads” events and are paying for basics, including teacher salaries, curriculum and even capital campaigns to renovate aging buildings.
At Highland View Elementary in
Silver Spring — where the PTA traditionally contributes money to causes abroad, such as earthquake relief in Haiti or providing clean running water to a school in El Salvador — parents now are focusing their fundraising on classroom technology.
“This year,” said PTA President Lynne Harris, “our school philanthropy is our school.”
Last spring, parents in Beverly Hills saved 13 teachers’ jobs through a campaign to raise $1 million in one week.
At New York City’s public Children’s Workshop School, parents are picking up the tab for air conditioners, lice checks and electrical wiring.
Schools’ growing demand for parent fundraising has triggered an alarmed response from PTA officials, who say the primary role of the organization is to advocate for public funds, not replace them.