A new report reveals how PTAs in the nation's most affluent school districts provide funding that enables schools to enrich students with butterfly gardens, rooftop greenhouses and observatories.
The analysis, “Hidden Money: The Outsized Role of Parent Contributions in School Finance,” by the Center for American Progress found the wealthiest 50 PTAs in the country raise $43 million in unrestricted funds, which researchers see as "a small, but growing contributor to funding inequity." (No Georgia PTA was among the 50.)
While government funding of schools is relatively equal, CAP says the scales tip when you count what parents contribute:
When considering federal, state, and local spending, nationwide, the highest-poverty districts spend about the same amount—only 2 percent less per student—as the most affluent districts. In the majority of states, per-pupil spending in high-poverty districts is about equal or more than per-pupil spending in affluent districts. But as CAP’s analysis shows, when private dollars are taken into account, it is clear that the education finance system benefits the wealthy. In 2013-14, the nation’s 50 richest raised nearly $43 million, an average of $867 for each student enrolled in those schools. These schools serve about one-tenth of a percent of the nationwide student population while raising around 10 percent of the estimated total $425 million raised by all PTAs in the country.
CAP suggests several ways to even the playing field, including collaborations where wealthy PTAs share their bounty with less affluent schools, a pooling of a portion of PTA monies and the use of equity funds. CAP says the assistance of parents in financing field trips, art, music instruction, new computers, after-school programs, supplies, clubs, and sports is often not transparent.
However, even if wealthy PTAs spread their abundance to other schools, there'd still be inequities in the extras kids receive in affluent districts. The benefits of affluent and well-educated parents go beyond successful fundraising. There's also the hard-to-quantity but very real asset of parent capital and capacity to problem-solve and mount rescue missions when called upon.
I saw that up close when I volunteered during the final week of rehearsals for my daughter's high school musical in Decatur. Two things amazed me: How much progress is made in those last days -- all credit to the chorus and drama teachers -- and how many eleventh hour saves are required to stage ambitious productions.
And that's where I saw parent capacity come into play.
Most of the last-minute madness was around costume alterations and changes. Without hesitation, parents dashed to get masking tape, capes or ribbon. I heard wives call husbands en route home from the office to divert them to Home Depot for wire or to Target for men's black socks. I witnessed parents apply their project management expertise to tickets, concession stands and uncooperative props. Volunteers arrived bearing glue guns, sewing machines and snacks for the hungry cast.
When online ticket sale snafus occurred, parents who were computer wizards leapt in and resolved problems quickly. I marveled over the organization, cheeriness and panache of the woman in charge of what theater folks call "the front of the house." Turns out she worked for Disney for 10 years where good-natured and flawless efficiency has been elevated to an art form.
When my oldest started kindergarten 23 years ago, my husband and I volunteered to organize Science Fridays in which parent volunteers would come for an hour to lead experiment with the kids. My daughter's teacher felt the kindergarten curriculum needed hands-on science. My husband and I weren't science mavens, but we had a lot of parents who worked at universities or the CDC. And so the kids were treated to a rich sampling of science.
Back then, Decatur was more economically diverse. There were parents who worked jobs that didn't permit them to take off a few hours on Friday to teach kindergarteners how to read tree rings or make their own rock candy. So, the parents with greater flexibility -- managers or tenured professors -- pulled double and triple duty that year.
Students benefit when parents can jump in and eliminate obstacles to meaningful events or step forward to create learning opportunities outside the regular classroom. All parents want to do that for their children, but rigid job schedules, pressing family demands and limited resources prevent some from doing so.
I am not sure how you equalize parent effort or expertise, but I can tell you it matters.