By Manny Otiko
Earlier this spring, New York Times national education reporter Dana Goldstein reported on an increasingly hot topic in education: parent fundraising.
The front-page April 8 article focused on the 11,000-student Santa Monica-Malibu School District, which has some high-income areas as well as schools where almost half of the students qualify for free lunches.
Unlike most school districts in the rest of the state and nation, however, the Santa Monica-Malibu school board requires parents to donate money for extra teachers and programs to a central foundation that shares the money with schools in the district.*
The district’s egalitarian approach has been nearly as controversial as it has been unusual.
Why did Goldstein and the Times focus on such an atypical example of PTA fundraising? Did the Times story give readers enough warning that what they were reading isn’t the case in the rest of the nation?
Emails from the reporter suggest that she doesn’t see this as an issue:
“Pretty much any urban district across the country, or any diverse suburban district with neighborhood schools, will confront the question of whether parental donations are causing disparities,” wrote Goldstein. “And since poor children tend to attend different schools, they aren’t benefiting from those donations.”
But one of the co-authors of the study that prompted the story thought that the piece might suggest that the level of conflict in Santa Monica-Malibu is more common than it actually is.
Front-page image of Malibu kids taking dance lessons that accompanied the NYT article.
Goldstein told The Grade that the story was motivated by a report from the Center for American Progress (CAP), a left-leaning Washington DC think tank. The report raised concerns about the inequitability of parent fundraising on top of traditional district spending that’s governed by districts and schools.
According to an interview Goldstein did with the Education Writers Association, The Fight Over PTA Fundraisers, PTAs raised close to $425 million nationally in 2013-14 of which just 50 super-wealthy districts accounted for 10 percent.
However, after reading the report Goldstein still had to sell the idea to her editors. “They generally look for an angle beyond a new report from a researcher,” said Goldstein via email. “They wanted to know if there was a district someplace that had tried to address these inequalities. I started researching and learned about Santa Monica-Malibu.”
The revenue-sharing is what makes Santa Monica-Malibu unusual, along with the enormous amounts of cash that have been raised.
As Goldstein points out in her piece, “Only a handful of school districts nationwide, including Portland, Ore., and Palo Alto, Calif., have tried to put their fingers on the scale by restricting the use of PTA money at individual schools.”
Goldstein’s editors were also interested in having her explain more about the intricacies of PTA fundraising: “While individual schools there continue to have their own PTAs, those PTAs are tightly restricted in how they can spend money,” she said.
“If parents want to fund school-day learning, they need to donate to a centralized foundation that redistributes the money equitably across schools, some of which are majority Latino and low-income. This has equalized access to arts and sciences in the Santa Monica-Malibu district, even though it’s somewhat controversial.”
“A goal of the entire project was to report on a diverse community with a commitment to sharing resources,” emailed Goldstein.
Indeed, the tensions over sharing resources ended up being a big focus of the piece, which in the final print version was headlined “Share PTA Aid? Some Parents Would Rather Split Up District.
CAP chart showing districts with equity provisions for PTA fundraising.
According to Goldstein, her story has turned out to be very popular. (As of early June, the story has attracted 480 comments.) Many parents were interested in learning more about the issue of how PTA money is used.
“I haven’t done a formal study, but it seemed that most commenters on our site and Twitter thought unequal parent donations were a problem,” said Goldstein. “On social media, some urban parents even said they would be more likely to give donations if they knew some of the money would help less affluent children and schools.
“However, there were certainly folks out there who made a different argument: that parents with means should be celebrated when they choose public education over private education. Their argument was that if school-specific donations allow those parents to be more comfortable with public school, that’s okay.”
Not everyone was happy with the issues raised in Goldstein’s article, she said
“I did hear from some sources in Malibu who were not thrilled with the piece. This didn’t surprise me. I think it’s hard and uncomfortable sometimes to see your local issue summarized and put into a national context,” said Goldstein about those responses.
“Maryann,” a reader who posted a comment on the New York Times’ website, took the position that Malibu parents should have a right to decide where their money is spent.
“If enough parents want an after school yoga program and they are willing to pay for it, then they should be able to have one. To say they are stingy and ungenerous because they don’t want to (maybe can’t) fund 10 other after school programs around the district before they can have one for their own school isn’t right,” she wrote.
Indeed, Malibu Times publisher Arnold York called the piece a hatchet job that stereotyped affluent Malibu residents as selfish. The lead picture, which features a dance class at a Malibu school, was particularly objectionable to York.
But another NY Times poster who went by “BGZ123” said the real problem is how schools are funded: “Public education funding in this country is a national shame. We should be outraged that, because public schools are primarily supported by local taxes, schools in poor districts provide – surprise! – poor educational opportunities compared with wealthier districts,” he wrote.
[Related post: Latest NYT School Data Visualization Dumbs Down Test Results]
Scott Sargrad, manager for K-12 education policy at CAP, said he was pleased with Goldstein’s reporting and the fact that it drew national attention to the issue. Sargrad, one of the authors of the report, said he spent two years investigating the issue.
He added that Goldstein did a great job explaining a complex issue and understanding the “flavor” of the communities she wrote about. “I think it was a really well-done article,” he said.
Sargrad said he was a little surprised at some of the negative feedback. The goal of the CAP report was to draw attention to the issue of education inequality, not point fingers. And he did offer one critique of Goldstein’s article. According to Sargrad, the focusing almost exclusively on the Santa Monica-Malibu district was misleading.
“I think the piece did emphasize the conflict in Santa Monica-Malibu, when other places don’t necessarily have the same level of conflict,” he said. “It probably could have made it more clear that Santa Monica-Malibu was unusual (or looked at other districts without that kind of conflict.)”
But Goldstein thinks that there are lots of districts with those kinds of tensions, even if they don’t manifest the same exact way as they have in Santa Monica-Malibu.
“I don’t think this problem is a niche one,” said Goldstein. “Think of New York City, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, Chicago, Seattle…the list goes on and on.”
“Santa Monica-Malibu is representative in that several years ago, it faced the question of what to do about inequalities in PTA funding. It’s unique in the way it chose to deal with it. The uniqueness is, in fact, why I chose to go there.”
Manny Otiko is a freelance writer who covers education, politics, sports and entertainment. You can read his work at https://mannyotiko.contently.com
*The original version of this sentence did not make clear that parents could still donate directly to some campus-specific projects like field trips.