Separate and Unequal: Fund-raisers give schools an edge
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- Subject: Separate and Unequal: Fund-raisers give schools an edge
- From: Peter Farruggio <email@example.com>
- Date: Wed, 18 Jun 2003 06:38:59 -0700
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Part three of the series on "Savage Inequalities" running in the Oakland
Article Last Updated: Wednesday, June 18, 2003 - 6:11:15 AM PST
Separate and Unequal: Fund-raisers give schools an edge
Fund-raisers pay for things poorer facilities have to cut
By Jill Tucker and Robert Gammon, STAFF WRITERS
FORGET bake sales.
Menlo Park Elementary School parents have raised more than $900,000 for the
district's four schools this year mostly from their annual auction -- the
equivalent of about $450 per student.
In Piedmont, several fund-raisers bring in about $1.3 million each year, or
about $500 per student.
Woodside parents also raise about $1.3 million, a whopping $3,000 for each
child -- through donation request letters and phone calls as well as an
Gone are the days when parents baked a batch of cookies for new band
uniforms or extra books for the library.
These days, a variety of fund-raisers, including glitzy auctions, charity
running races, local cable telethons, dinners, raffles and outright
requests for cash mean big bucks for some schools districts -- money that
not only pays for library books, but the librarians, too.
That discretionary money has meant the difference between keeping or
cutting art, music, textbooks or even teachers in those districts,
especially when the economy calls for cutbacks, as is currently the case.
But not all parents can pump millions into their local public schools.
The disparity in donations has resulted in students from higher-income
areas receiving a public education often worth hundreds or thousands of
dollars more than their low-income counterparts.
It also means that the real condition of public education is being masked
in middle- and upper-class communities -- with parents and private money
literally filling in the holes left by budget cuts and below-average state
spending on schools.
"We're paying for math textbooks; we're paying for a science teacher; we're
paying for the librarians," said Lynne Young, president of the non-profit
Menlo Park-Atherton Education Foundation, which has raised more than $20
million since 1982. "We've really worked hard at letting our parent
population know that a good public school is not free."
It's a situation that has the state's teachers union brass posing the
impossible: Prevent parents from contributing to their schools so the real
condition of public education is exposed, thereby forcing the middle class
to direct its political pull at more public resources for everyone.
"It sounds almost un-American," said Wayne Johnson, outgoing president of
the California Teachers Association. "But when you allow communities to
subsidize a particular school ... it creates even larger inequities. You
shouldn't be allowed to do that."
Luxury for some
In the Oakland hills, at Redwood Heights Elementary School -- where just 8
percent of students are considered low-income -- the PTA raised $106,000
Equal to $380 per student, the money pays for a librarian, field trips,
office equipment, a lunch supervisor and classroom grants for teachers.
"We've had the luxury of being very flush with money," said Redwood Heights
PTA President Anna Brekke-Yungert. "It's also totally luxury to have
parents who have the time to volunteer. Unfortunately, other schools don't
have that luxury."
Down in the flatlands, at Horace Mann Elementary School in East Oakland --
where 63 percent of students are poor -- there is no PTA.
A school fund-raiser last fall brought in $900, or the equivalent of $1.77
"If you live up in the hills, let's face it, a lot of mothers aren't
working so they have time," said Horace Mann's principal, Nancy Morganti.
"But we live in a socio-economic area where some parents may work a swing
shift or at a time where they can't come to a PTA meeting."
And they don't necessarily have the ability to write a check to help cover
school costs that state money can't.
Granted, schools with a large number of low-income students are eligible
for significant public and private resources not available to higher-income
schools, including technology grants, federal Title I money and
taxpayer-funded teacher training.
But that money often comes with strings attached, leaving individual
schools often unable to address the specific needs of students.
This so-called categorical funding might provide computers for every
classroom, for example, to a school that lacks updated wiring. Or it might
provide money to buy library books when there aren't enough textbooks to go
Yet in higher income areas, parent or community donations can mean
computers, teacher salaries, building renovations, textbooks or even tubas,
if desired, freeing up public money that would have otherwise been spent on
Many of those schools end up looking like private schools with a public
name. And the parents, who would otherwise be paying for private school
anyway, get more bang for their buck by supplementing their publicly funded
"A lot of the families in our district could go public or private and they
choose to go public for a lot of reasons," Young said, adding that a local
private school in Atherton costs about $25,000 per year. "So writing a
check for (the average donation to the non-profit foundation) is a lot less."
Feeling the pinch
After 1978's Proposition 13 shifted the financial burden of educating
children from school districts to the state, schools started to feel the
pinch caused by the lack of local control. They could no longer raise taxes
to pay the bills.
So parents started to step in.
They started forming nonprofit foundations -- allowing them to essentially
hand over cold, hard cash to the districts to buy whatever the community
felt the schools needed.
That money was on top of the traditional PTA contributions -- which
typically don't pay for teacher or staff salaries and are usually tangible
gifts, like computers, books, building renovations and art supplies.
Only about a dozen foundations existed before Proposition 13; there are now
more than 500 such groups across California that raise an estimated $30
million each year.
"Foundations do bring in untapped resources," said Susan Sweeney, executive
director of the California Consortium of Education Foundations. "The local
community can decide what's really important to them."
In years past, that used to mean educational extras, maybe field trips,
guest speakers or expensive art equipment.
But local parent groups are saying the foundations are increasingly paying
for basics, such as librarians, facility upgrades or other teaching staff.
"Without the PTA, our kids wouldn't have access to art and music, and the
library," said Patrice Fusillo, president of Oakland's Hillcrest Elementary
School. "The sad reality is that as the state cuts more and more in what
they're giving to schools, parents have no choice but to raise money if
they want to have things."
In Menlo Park, Young said the foundation pays for librarians at each of the
four schools, an elementary school science teacher, the middle school art
program, math textbooks and materials, musical instruments and field trips,
among other things.
"I think it's very unfortunate, but it's just reality that in California
you have to contribute to your public schools," she added. "The government
is just not giving enough funds and paying for things to give a quality
Parents make a difference
So what does that mean if parents can't pick up the slack?
Study after study shows that parent involvement at a child's school -- be
that financial or personal time -- makes a difference in boosting student
performance, reducing dropout rates and alleviating behavior problems.
Minority and low-income parents, as well as those with lower levels of
education, are less likely to participate in back-to-school night, science
fairs, parent-teacher conferences and school board meetings or to
volunteer, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
In Berkeley, for example, parents in some neighborhoods don't understand
how to help their schools and so they don't try, said parent Trina
Ostrander, who is also executive director the Berkeley Public Education
In wealthier neighborhoods, however, families have personal resources and
understand how to connect them to the schools.
"They have friends who own Pixar," she said. "Parents who have
expectations, they know where to go to get extra support."
For those schools, that parent support produces a chain reaction:
- The extra resources help create a strong educational environment.
- Teachers are drawn to schools with resources and parent support.
- Students perform well with good teachers and significant resources.
- Parents with resources are drawn to the neighborhood because the school
And the cycle continues.
The opposite is often true for schools without such resources.
Especially in lean budget times, schools without parent resources have to
cut programs, layoff teachers and reduce overhead.
Music, art, small classes and librarians get the ax.
While they might still have computers bought with special public funding,
they don't have anyone to help incorporate them into the curriculum.
Students already at a socio-economic disadvantage face even greater obstacles.
Teachers don't want to teach in such a difficult environment.
And the cycle continues.
"Schools are based so much on parent participation," said Anthony Hall,
chairman of the Parent Teacher Club at Hoover Elementary School in
low-income West Oakland. "You really need parents to be involved with the
kids. But our parents -- most of our parents -- are just not available.
Their life situations are more than they can handle. I know three kids who
have relatives who were shot to death recently."
The Hoover Parent Teacher Club raised about $1,200 this year for the
school, where test scores rank at the bottom of the state.
Hall is the club's only member.
PTA's pairing up
In some communities across the country, including Bethesda, Md., and
Memphis, Tenn., PTA organizations in wealthier areas are pairing up with
those in lower socio-economic communities to sponsor fund-raisers together.
The pairing has apparently helped schools with fewer PTA members to
increase recruitment and share the time-consuming responsibilities of
Locally, in some of the larger districts, like Fremont, which has diverse
demographics, the parent foundations are helping spread the wealth across
all district schools, regardless of how much parents at each campus
"Every Fremont school has either a PTA or PTO (parent-teacher
organization), but the amount of money they can raise and the amount of
participation they have varies greatly," said Nina Moore, outgoing
president of the Fremont Education Foundation and the district's school
board president. "Our whole idea was to do something that we could do
equitably across the district."
The foundation has raised about $80,000 each year since 2000 through a
telethon and mailing campaign. The money buys an after-school band program
in all 27 elementary schools.
Music in the those grades had been absent since the early '90s -- cut
during the last serious budget crisis.
About 1,000 students now participate in the program.
Moore said she left her job as a director at Sun Microsystems to
concentrate on her children and their education. She has thrown herself
into the task, multitasking through fund-raisers for the foundation and
budget cuts on the board.
She acknowledged the schools that need the most resources for their
students are likely to get hit the hardest because there will be no one to
help fill the gaps.
"I really think it's so important to have people fighting for all the
schools," she said. "If you are a single parent or if you're two working
blue-collar parents, working split shifts, that doesn't mean you don't care
about your child's education. It means you can't be as involved."
Contact Jill Tucker at email@example.com and Robert Gammon at
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