“Good” Schools

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Can We Fix The One Big Problem With The PTA?

What if all schools in a district had to share the money equally?

Originally Published: 
The Back To School Issue

In Seattle, they auctioned off a Tesla. In New York City, they auctioned off Lasik eye surgery. In a Dallas suburb, they raised $2 million in a single year.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that these are the stories of tech startups or hedge funds, but in fact these are all school PTAs. What’s more, they’re PTAs for public schools: Garfield High School in Seattle, PS 116 in New York, and Highland Park High School in Dallas.

Needless to say, this isn’t what PTA fundraising looks like in every school. Most PTAs and school fundraising efforts are still much more likely to be bake sales, book fairs, and walk-a-thons than Teslas. But, particularly after the 2008 crisis, when many states slashed their education budgets, private fundraising by parent groups has created huge discrepancies in what schools can offer.

“When districts face budget cuts, parents in the most affluent communities often respond by raising hundreds of thousands (and sometimes millions) of dollars annually for their local schools,” says Brittany Murray, assistant professor of educational studies and political science at Davidson College, who has researched how the discrepancy plays out. This money pays for books, teachers, renovations, technology, and in one case, even ballroom dancing lessons.

And the poorer schools in the very same school district? They struggle to pay for basic services and building maintenance. The differences aren’t exactly subtle. Among 10 public high schools in Seattle, where I grew up, the amount of money that the fundraising groups had in their 2018 reserve budgets ranged from $3.5 million to $0. Wherever your kid’s school falls on the fundraising spectrum, you might be bothered by this discrepancy. You also might be tempted to say, with resignation in your voice, that that’s just the way things are.

But it doesn’t have to be.

“We should be able to do something about this.”

Like most parents, Suni Kartha and Biz Lindsay-Ryan, two parents in Evanston, Illinois, assumed that the schools that their own children attended had roughly the same resources as the other schools in the district. Lindsay-Ryan’s kid’s school had a very small PTA budget; she described herself as “one of a limited number of families who could donate $100 or more to school projects.” However, she says she didn’t know that her kids literally had less. “I assumed that was just how schools worked, and that what we had was what everybody else had.”

Meanwhile at Kartha’s school, which drew students from predominantly wealthier families, fundraising looked very different — no Teslas were on auction, but it was still a stark contrast with other schools in the district. When Kartha’s oldest child was in elementary school, the school spent $75,000 to install an athletic court and a track, a combination of the PTA’s reserve funds and money they raised through a fundraising effort.

“When you’re doing equity work, it’s always going to be touchy because you’re talking about kids, a parent’s most precious thing.”

That amount would have been Lindsay-Ryan’s kid’s school’s entire PTA budget for almost three years. Yet because parents were typically siloed within their own school communities, the resource discrepancies often went unnoticed, or at least unacknowledged.

Kartha started to notice, though, when she ran for the school board on a platform of increasing equity in the district. Being on the school board allowed her to fully see the dramatic difference PTA fundraising made for the activities, facilities, and opportunities different schools could offer. When playground equipment became broken or damaged at some schools, for instance, it would be replaced by PTAs in short order; other schools wouldn’t be able to make replacements and would just make do with less.

When Kartha started asking around, various administrators told her something along the lines of “Yeah, this is a problem; we’ve tried to address it, but it goes nowhere.” She was, in her own words, “just naive and optimistic enough to think ‘We should be able to do something about this.’”

Eventually, all the Evanston schools pooled their resources together and started doing collaborative fundraising — but it took a while to get there. The event pictured was a districtwide PTA event.PTA Equity Project/Meghan Shea

She also learned from talking to older members of the community, whose children were now adults, that they remembered similar problems from when their own children were in school. This was when she realized that funding discrepancy was definitely not a new problem. She felt confident, she told me, that if everyone could just sit down and listen to each other, they would be inspired to act.

Six years ago, Kartha discovered that Lindsay-Ryan, who at the time was working as an equity, diversity, and inclusion consultant for the district, was also interested in the issue. The two of them met at a Potbelly Sandwich Shop and had their first conversation about what would become an all-consuming project.

First Steps

As a school board member, Kartha could have sought to mandate, as a matter of board policy, that all schools in the district use a new funding structure. But her research made her wary of that option; it had gone badly elsewhere. In 2011, California’s Santa Monica–Malibu Unified School District had passed a policy barring parents from making donations to their individual schools and centralized PTA funding. That decision had led to what Slate described as a “parent revolt” among the Malibu parents.

Both Lindsay-Ryan and Kartha agreed that what they really needed was buy-in from the people in power at every school: Every PTA, no matter its level of resources, needed to work together to solve the problem. To get that buy-in, they saw another fork in the road. “We knew we could stack the deck,” Lindsay-Ryan recalls, by choosing representatives from each school who would support the plan. But if they did that, they anticipated meeting resistance later on in the process. Instead, they went with a second option: “Make it as hard as possible to get off the ground but then have the buy-in we needed.”

“This is not about ‘not knowing how to fundraise.’ This is about who is in your school and what they can afford.”

At one of their first meetings, they did what they called some “low-stakes sharing” in which they went around the room and asked representatives from each school whether they had various “extras” (for example, a science fair or a garden). A clear pattern emerged. Certain schools had every extra, while other schools had none.

But some of the parents at higher-resource schools wanted to solve that discrepancy in ways that Kartha and Lindsay-Ryan saw as paternalistic or ineffective. Some parents floated the idea of assigning the school with lower-income families in the district a “sister school,” a school with wealthier families who would teach them to fundraise. They pushed back on that: “This is not about ‘not knowing how to fundraise.’ This is about who is in your school and what they can afford.”

Next came the idea that the lower-resource schools should have to give “deliverables” and account for how they were spending the money. “We had to push back on that too, and say, ‘Look, we trust PTAs,’” says Lindsay-Ryan. “Just as we don’t micromanage how you spend your money, we’re not going to micromanage lower-resource schools.”

Moving To The “One-Fund” Model

They first got buy-in to a model of more incremental redistribution, in which a percentage of the fundraising at higher-resource schools was redistributed to lower-resource schools, with a goal of getting each school’s PTA to a point where it had a minimum of $70 per student. But the committee’s vision was bigger: They believed that Evanston could be a trailblazing school district that would have “one fund,” a system in which all school fundraising across the eighteen district school PTAs would go into a pot and then be distributed equitably.

In May 2020, pandemic-related disruptions highlighted the problems with tying fundraising dollars to particular schools: Families at several higher-resourced schools were able to rapidly raise funds to cover the food and rent for struggling families at their school but often had lower numbers of families in the school that actually needed support. Meanwhile, Lindsay-Ryan says, “The middle school with the most need had the least capacity to raise it.”

An advertisement for the district’s first collaborative fundraiser since the one-fund model launched.PTA Equity Project/Meghan Shea

By combining their resources, the district was able to quickly raise $500,000. A parent volunteer who works as an accountant helped with crunching the numbers to figure out how much each school should receive. For instance, Kartha’s school put $47,000 into the fund and only got $8,000 back. Then individual school principals and social workers were put in charge of distributing that money, in the form of gift cards, to the families who most needed it; they also used the funds to get the necessary technology for distance learning into the hands of kids who didn’t already have it at home. The ability to swiftly respond to a crisis and help families across the district, regardless of what school they were in, helped parents see the power of the “one-fund” model.

In December 2020, all 18 schools in the district agreed to move to a “one-fund” model for the next three years.

Collaborative Fundraising

Now that the schools are all pooling their funds, they’ve also started to rethink the usual fundraising model, in which each school does its own private fundraisers. Instead, schools have begun to look for more opportunities to combine fundraising efforts. Meghan Shea, a current co-chair of the PTA Equity Project (PEP), was part of a team that put together an event at the end of the school year in June, called “PEP Fest,” which brought together every PTA in the district for a day of food, activities, vendors, and a raffle. “We raised over $10,000 without any budget used for the event itself,” Shea explains. “Folks donated items for the raffle, and we had shared PTA resources used for the event itself. PEP Fest was set up to model what equitable fundraising and community building can look like.”

The 2021-22 school year was the first year when the one-fund model was fully in place, and the PEP committee is still figuring out how it works in practice. “The struggles have been a bit more about the ‘how’ of it — and some of that is that we have to jump in and try,” Shea explained.

“In an ideal world, PTAs wouldn’t need to fundraise for their schools.”

The committee is gearing up for the next round of votes, since the 18 schools in the district have thus far only committed to trying the “one-fund” approach for three years. And a lot can change in three years. “We have new PTA leadership in place and new caregivers in our community, so we have to build and maintain relationships with each of the PTAs.” Shea is working on ensuring that PTAs have their questions answered and feel invested in the project “so we can move forward to a ‘yes’ for the next vote as well.”

How To Do It Too

After more than three years of diffusing resistance from other parents, both Lindsay-Ryan and Kartha have deep insight into resistance to funding equity — both how it manifests and the root causes of it. “Every parent wants to believe that they’re doing the best thing for their child,” says Kartha. “When you’re doing equity work, it’s always going to be touchy because you’re talking about kids, a parent’s most precious thing. … A lot of our work at the beginning was saying ‘There are no judgments here. No one has been doing anything wrong. We’ve all been doing what we thought we needed to be doing.’”

After having gone through the yearslong process, they also suggested a few other strategies for parents who want to launch a similar project in their own district:

  • Identify the problem. PTA funding often isn’t publicly disclosed, but it’s also not hard to figure out which schools have more or less in a given district. The “low-stakes” sharing can help identify which schools consistently get the “extras” and which don’t.
  • Bring different voices to the table. Not all resistance is bad. People who opposed the plan, Kartha says, would often “raise really valid concerns and questions that maybe we hadn’t thought through, which made us stronger.”
  • Differentiate between tactical opposition and philosophical opposition. There’s a difference between people who are philosophically opposed to the idea of sharing beyond their own school and people who are concerned about the logistics of how it will work. People who are philosophically opposed are unlikely to be helpful. The people who are confused about the “how” can be helpful in thinking through the logistical problems.
  • Incremental change is better than no change. The schools in Evanston didn’t move straight to the one-fund model, but instead started by redistributing a percentage of the fundraising at higher-resource schools. Depending on the size of your school district or the way that your local PTA groups react to the idea, you may start with a smaller step toward equity. It’s still a step in the right direction.
  • Do your research. Evanston’s PEP group has a lengthy Q&A page that is a great place to start in addressing questions that you’re likely to get: What about Title I funding? What formula should schools use to allocate the money? Is the number of children receiving free and reduced price lunch an adequate measure for the need at a given school?.

Evanston had some things working for it: It’s a famously progressive city and a relatively small one. But other school districts in the country have made moves toward PTA equity: Portland, Oregon; Arlington, Virginia; and Oakland, California, are some of them.

Even the parents who devoted endless hours to the Evanston PEP project agree on one fundamental principle: In an ideal world, PTAs wouldn’t need to fundraise for their schools. Even with lavish PTA fundraisers, money raised by parents accounts for less than 1% of total school spending. Some of the resistance the one-fund advocates encountered was from parents who wanted them to tackle the bigger sources of funding discrepancies. They made the point that they had to start with what they could control: “You’re not going to solve the whole problem,” Lindsay-Ryan says. “We’re fixing a broken part of a broken system — you can take parts of that system and make them less broken.”

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