When parents give money to their children’s schools, resource gaps between schools widen.
Nearly 20 years ago, the town of Cary, N.C., a predominantly White and wealthy suburb, revealed a plan to invest almost 4 million municipal dollars annually into its larger, more racially and socioeconomically diverse consolidated school district. Instead of supporting all schools in the district, however, these funds would only benefit schools that served at least 30 students living within Cary’s town limits. These schools, which were often higher performing and more affluent than the district schools on average, would receive a supplement of $200 per Cary pupil, giving those serving the most Cary students upwards of $350,000 a year (Houck, 2008; Price, 2000).
Public officials in smaller, less affluent towns within the school district raised concerns about the program’s effect on districtwide equity. Because of its large, wealthy tax base, Cary could raise more money than other towns and pour those funds into its relatively high-performing schools, putting the district’s poorer schools and students at an even greater disadvantage.
This phenomenon of creatively supplementing school budgets is not isolated to Cary, nor does it always involve municipal funding schemes. Across the United States, affluent parents frequently donate large sums of money to their children’s public schools and host elaborate school fund-raisers through well-organized and professionalized parent-teacher associations (PTAs), parent-teacher organizations (PTOs), booster clubs, school foundations, and other school-supporting nonprofit organizations. Generally, these funding mechanisms are completely unregulated, and they usually widen existing gaps in school funding and other resources. 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 to pay for books, curricula, instructional staff, facility renovations, new technology, science lab equipment, and even luxuries such as ballroom dancing lessons, while poorer schools in the same district struggle to pay for basic services and building maintenance (Goldstein, 2018).
For their part, district leaders face a difficult choice. They can look the other way while already well-resourced schools receive new infusions of money from their wealthy constituencies (while hoping some of that money will trickle down to disadvantaged students). Or, if parents are unwilling to share those resources with other schools, district leaders can put limits on such funding and, by doing so, risk the secession of or disinvestment by wealthy parents. Further, similar dilemmas often play out within individual schools, where principals must decide how to balance the overall benefits of parent involvement with the harm done by affluent PTA members who try to steer collective resources to their own children (Posey-Maddox, 2014).
Parent fund-raising and school inequality
Prevailing school improvement models maintain that parents are key to improving student success and building a strong culture of achievement (Bryk et al., 2010; Every Student Succeeds Act, 2015; Epstein, 2010; Lee, Bryk, & Smith, 1993). And quite often, the PTA plays a lead role in parent involvement, creating opportunities for parents to volunteer at the school, providing ways for them to monitor their own children’s progress, and giving them a venue in which to express their opinions about school and district measures. As such, these organizations are instrumental in facilitating communication between families and schools, building trust, empowering parents, and tapping into sources of funding and support.
The most well-resourced public schools also are the ones that are most likely to receive an infusion of tax-free charitable contributions from parents.
But affluent parents with the highest propensity for involvement are also known to wield their social, cultural, and financial resources to influence teachers and administrators to pay special attention to their children, place them in higher-level tracks, excuse behavioral infractions, and adopt policies and practices that focus on the needs of their own children at the exclusion of others (Lareau, 2000; Lewis & Diamond, 2015; Lewis-McCoy, 2014). Not only do these parents have access to the most advantaged neighborhoods and schools but, within those schools, they are vocal about their grievances, often as a group (Horvat, Weininger, & Lareau, 2003).
On the surface, it’s laudable that parents would band together to supplement local school budgets, which are often insufficient. However, parent organizations that raise significant sums tend to be concentrated in predominantly White and affluent schools and districts, meaning that the most well-resourced public schools also are the ones that are most likely to receive an infusion of tax-free charitable contributions from parents (Murray et al., in press; Nelson & Gazley, 2014). As such, these organizations act as mechanisms for well-off parents to pass advantages on to their children while gaining a tax break for their efforts (Brown, Sargrad, & Benner, 2017; McKenna, 2016; Reeves, 2017). Perhaps it’s no surprise that students in schools with an active PTA perform better on standardized tests, but the evidence also suggests that even in economically diverse schools, the existence of a PTA tends to benefit nonpoor students the most (Murray et al., in press).
Equity-minded superintendents often find themselves at odds with well-intentioned parents who want to contribute financially to the schools their children attend.
While PTA resources may be minuscule in comparison to government allocations, they are used at the discretion of parents, teachers, and/or administrators, and they can be significant enough to create major advantages for specific students, particularly when used in targeted ways. For example, parent contributions, funneled through PTAs and similar groups, often go to pay for specialized curricula and support staff for gifted and talented programs, dual-language instruction, and other specialized offerings, which, in turn, are accessed mainly by the children of the parents making the donations (Murray, et al., 2018; Posey-Maddox, 2014). In short, it’s not just the total amount of PTA funding that matters, but also the ways in which those funds are allocated within the school.
District strategies to curb inequality
For leaders of large and diverse school districts, it is never easy to decide how best to respond to variations in local schools’ ability to raise funds, and equity-minded superintendents often find themselves at odds with well-intentioned parents who want to contribute financially to the schools their children attend. In a number of cities, though, district administrators have taken steps to curb the inequitable effects of parent fund-raising by creating districtwide foundations to redistribute PTA money and/or by setting policies that limit PTA funding.
For example, in 1994, Portland, Ore., Public Schools (PPS) created a foundation to redistribute parent donations in an effort to maintain equity in the district. This approach was born after the state cut more than 50% of education revenue from property taxes as a way to curb interdistrict inequality that resulted from disparities in neighborhood property values (Oregon Department of Revenue, 2009). However, instead of simply reducing inequity, the measure resulted in the loss of support staff and instructors for art, music, and math instruction; mentorship programs, and extracurricular activities. Some Oregon school districts were so resource-poor they were forced to end the school year early (Dillon, 2003).
When parents stepped up to carry the burden of the state’s funding inadequacies, the PPS school board required that the dollars raised be redistributed so that all schools in the district could benefit. Under this initiative, each school established its own foundation and submitted 30% of funds raised over a $10,000 threshold to the district foundation, which then gave equity grants to disadvantaged schools using a formula that considered the school’s level of government funding, Title I status, racial/ethnic composition, proportion receiving free or reduced-price lunch, and charitable fund-raising.
Although such redistributive policies have earned strong public support, they have had limited success in reducing inequities among schools. After funds are redistributed, Portland’s most well-resourced PTAs still have hundreds of thousands of dollars remaining in their budgets, while disadvantaged schools receive annual grants of only $20,000 to $30,000. Additionally, only money that is transferred into PTA accounts has to be reported — if funds are spent directly on students, classrooms, and programs, they bypass the school’s account and stay under the radar. Moreover, teachers hired using the charitable funds have poor job security, given that parent donations are inconsistent from year to year.
Finally, the PPS policy creates a serious disadvantage for schools with PTAs that are successful, but not very successful, at fund-raising. Whether a school has raised a million dollars or a mere $11,000, it must give away 30% of all funds that exceed the $10,000 threshold. Further, once a school surpasses that amount, even if only by $1,000, it does not meet the requirements for an equity grant. In effect, it is penalized for its own modest success at fund-raising (Manning, 2015) — instead of receiving a $20,000-$30,000 grant, it will keep only a little more than $10,000.
A number of other districts have chosen to limit the amount and/or types of expenditures PTAs can fund. In Montgomery County, Md., for example, parents cannot fund teachers or any other regular, full-time employee in the school (Bui, 2013). New York City has a similar policy in regard to hiring core instructional staff, and other districts review requests from parent groups on a case-by-case basis: If the request is an ambitious project that cannot be replicated in all schools, it is often denied. And in Greenwich Public Schools, Conn., any amount raised in excess of the school board’s assigned funding cap is subject to approval (Greenwich Public Schools, 2017).
Meeting political challenges
In recent decades, a number of equity- and adequacy-oriented reforms have been litigated in state courts, leading to more compensatory education funding and somewhat less reliance on disparate property taxes to finance schools. As a result, public school spending is arguably more equitable now than at any point in the nation’s history. However, to the extent that these efforts have caused reductions in state funding for relatively wealthy districts, parents have tended to respond by raising private funds for their local schools.
Much of this disparity occurs within districts — as in Cary, N.C., a wealthy town might pour money into its own schools, while schools in the neighboring town struggle to cope with the district’s funding cuts. Yet, researchers have rarely examined variations in funding within districts, since much of the available data focuses on disparities between districts. Clearly this phenomenon deserves more scholarly attention, given the tensions it has created in many communities.
To justify their high levels of PTA fund-raising, parents and educators often argue that they have no choice but to seek private dollars since, unlike nearby schools with high proportions of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch, their own schools are not eligible to receive supplemental Title I dollars (Friedman, 2011; Manning, 2015). For example, one principal at an affluent, predominantly White elementary school in North Carolina reflects on the challenges she faces hiring personnel, challenges she perceives Title I schools do not have to contend with:
You have to remember, this is all I’ve got . . . . You’re thinking, “Well we really need this Title I money.” Yes, you do. But what you’re doing with that Title I money is the same thing that I’m doing with the money that we’re raising. We’re doing the same stuff. Our funding sources are different. Yours is given to you because it needs to be, and it should be. But my kids still need stuff, too. So I have to come up with a way to make it happen, you know? . . . And that’s hard for Title I folks sometimes. They’re always like, well everyone over there is on grade level. No, they’re not. I can assure you they’re not . . . We do without a lot of things that some of our other schools have.
Further, opponents of redistribution strategies often point out that if they have to share some of the funds they raise, then wealthy parents may stop donating altogether, choose to move their kids to private schools, or even work together to secede from their consolidated district. And, indeed, the latter scenario does sometimes occur — for example, in the Malibu Santa Monica Unified School District, Calif., the district’s decision to redistribute PTA funds helped fuel parents’ desire to split from the poorer section of the district and create a more socioeconomically homogenous district where they will have more control over how their charitable dollars are used (Goldstein, 2018).
A wealthy town might pour money into its own schools, while schools in the neighboring town struggle to cope with the district’s funding cuts.
To some extent, school and district leaders may be able to counteract such hoarding of resources by finding ways to bring more economic and racial diversity into their PTAs, which are often dominated by the most affluent parents in the community. For example, effective ways to encourage more diverse representation on parent committees can be as simple as offering food and child care, sending out parent surveys to learn how best to loop in marginalized families, creating parent affinity groups and programs, and doing community outreach to draw in parents who aren’t involved (Murray et al., 2018). Similarly, PTA leaders of well-resourced schools might be encouraged to reach out to other PTAs in their district, if not to share funds then at least to help them learn how to fund-raise more effectively. Some PTAs have even chosen to work with schools that do not current have a PTA at all, helping them build the parent engagement needed to start their own organization within the school. To date, such efforts remain few and far between, but at least they show that relatively affluent parents can turn their PTA work into an act of service not just for their child’s school, but for the wider community.
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Citation: Murray, B.C. (2019). PTAs, parent involvement, and the challenges of relying on private money to subsidize public education. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (8), 42-46.