Over the past several decades, private fundraising for public schools has increased as state and local funding has declined. Revenue from school-supporting nonprofits, like parent-teacher associations, increased nearly 350% from 1995-2010, according to a 2014 study conducted by researchers at Indiana University Bloomington.
Students who live in affluent communities with the financial and social capital to fundraise benefit from class-size reductions, technology, arts programs and other resources that enhance the school’s success. In contrast, families in disadvantaged communities don’t have the money, time or connections to privately fund the substantial needs of their public school students. This disparity exacerbates Seattle’s income inequality crisis and perpetuates the city’s harmful history of racial segregation.
“Seattle has the worst student opportunity gap in the state, and the fifth worst in the nation. PTA funding widens that gap,” says Hayden Bass, a SPS parent and co-founder of Families and Communities for Equity in Schools (FACES).
In an effort to heal this divide, The Seattle Council PTSA (SCPTSA), a volunteer organization representing more than 80 PTAs in the Seattle school district, issued a resolution highlighting the PTA’s original mission and history of building community through child advocacy. Energy that is now spent on “mega-fundraising” was once devoted giving a voice to vulnerable children, engaging families, and advocating for policy changes in public education.
Chandra Hampson, former SCPTSA chair, current Seattle School Board candidate and author of the #TakeBackPTA Resolution, has deep concerns about inadequate accounting practices by the district in tracking how PTA funds are accepted and used. As a result, the district often can’t issue a receipt to PTAs. This creates a lack of transparency that may jeopardize a PTA’s 501(c)(3) status. PTAs themselves don’t use a consistent set of budget categories, creating further inability to aggregate data and track how funds are used by schools.
There’s also the question of sustainability. A PTA might be able to raise funds one year for a new staff position, but may not be able to maintain that position the following year. Hampson has also seen how PTA fundraising leads to internal tensions within a school. As SCPTSA chair, Hampson recalls, “Every week I would get a call from a school where the PTA was caught in a confrontation with staff or parents around the funding of a staff position.”
Finally, there’s the unfortunate reality that PTA fundraising competes with community-based organizations like the YMCA that provide after-school programming. “If parents are donating to their PTA, they’re not giving money to the organizations that are trying to work in the schools,” says Hampson.
“We wouldn't have these circumstances if we were fully funded at the state level and enrichment programs weren't the first to be cut and our teachers weren’t just struggling to have the basics in many cases,” shares Keli Faw, president of the Broadview-Thomson PTA in North Seattle, where 56% of the school’s students participate in the free and reduced price meals program. Some argue that if parents keep filling the funding gap, local and state government will never fully fund public education.
Lisa Rivera Smith, leading the startup of Lincoln High School’s PTA in Wallingford and also a candidate for the Seattle School Board, agrees that PTAs should revitalize their advocacy efforts. However, she is realistic about how long that process will take. Parents want to make sure their children’s needs are met, whether that be funding for reading specialists or another service: “I can’t morally tell them, ‘Well, let’s stop paying for that, advocate at the state, and then see if we can get that specialist paid for in the next two or three years.’ Our kids don’t have that long.”
At schools where families have limited resources, it’s difficult for PTAs to fulfill their advocacy mission. Rising Star Elementary at the African American Academy (formerly Van Asselt) in South Seattle, a Title I school, doesn’t have a designated board member to attend city and state events to learn about legislation and represent their school’s needs. As Katharine Strange, secretary for the school’s PTA, told Seattle’s Child, “Most well-funded PTAs have a legislative chair. But we’re a board of five to eight people. We just don’t have the time to sit in more meetings. We all work, and some members are experiencing housing instability.”
In addition to the barriers of cost (Rising Star parents pay $10 to join the PTA) and language, Strange says just having to complete the necessary form to join is a barrier. Exhausted parents are already required to fill out multiple forms at the beginning of the school year to receive any sort of assistance and aid; asking them to fill out one more is sometimes too much.
Bass echoes these barriers. At her child’s school, which has a majority of families of color, the PTA leadership is majority white. Childcare is available for community meetings but not board meetings, and they can’t always hire interpreters to accommodate language differences. The primary focus of the PTA is on fundraising activities, further alienating families.
“When there are events that are not related to fundraising, like potlucks where every family feels they can contribute, attendance is excellent. Families of color are heavily involved in the school and invested in their kids’ education — just not necessarily in the PTA,” says Bass.
Momentum to change
Since PTAs are standalone organizations with full operational autonomy, the SCPTSA is limited in its ability to enforce change. Ultimately, it’s up to each PTA to decide to adopt the SCPTSA’s resolution. Whatever the response, it’s clear that the SCPTSA is not the only organization trying to address the issue of inequity.
“Our group hears from parents and parent-teacher groups who want to act on this issue on a very regular basis,” says Bass.
FACES has proposed that PTAs contribute a portion of their proceeds to an equity fund that would distribute money to higher-needs schools. Montlake Elementary’s PTA gave 5% of its revenue to Lowell Elementary in 2018-19. Green Lake Elementary contributed funds to Rising Star the previous school year, which helped Rising Star support its soccer program.
Hampson fears that efforts like these still involve the PTA in fundraising. She says that if something like an equity fund were to be implemented districtwide, “the district should handle any restrictions on funds they receive from PTAs,” not the parent associations. Furthermore, the focus should be on sustainability, targeting funds around particular ongoing needs, like librarians or nurses. Even then, Hampson feels that “probably the best bet is to support the nonprofit in our community that can provide services in schools.”
It’s not just about the exchange of money. As Strange points out when discussing Rising Star’s relationship with Green Lake Elementary, “We can teach schools and help schools because of our diversity. We have things to give to other schools. We don’t want to be considered a charity case … The segregation in our system really hurts us. Funding is a piece, but it won’t make these problems go away.”
Smith agrees that “the very last thing we should be doing is pitting schools against schools, or communities against communities.” She also echoes Hampson’s point about the long-term benefits of developing more partnerships between schools and community-based organizations.
Regardless of how it’s done, if Seattle parents genuinely want equal outcomes for all students, a paradigm shift must occur. As Bass sees it, “It will mean changing the way we do things: the ways we interact with our schools, the district, and each other. It will mean really believing that all the kids are our kids, and acting on that belief.”
She also emphasizes that, “it’s the communities most affected by this issue, communities of color, who should lead the decision-making around solutions.”
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