Last December, I bought a holiday wreath from my buddy, Jaden, who’s raising money for his school’s space camp. Then I read “Not Very Giving,” a New York Times op-ed by Stanford University political scientist Rob Reich.
It seems, though, that in purchasing the wreath, I participated in a process — school fundraising — that lessens pressure on legislators to fund public education, distributes the most money to schools needing it least and widens the equality gap. Adding insult to injury, Reich says, much of the fundraising that promotes this inequality is subsidized by taxpayers — donations to public schools and local school foundations are not taxed.
How am I supposed to support local schools? How does 6th grader Jaden get to the space camp with his public school classmates? And how do other children have the resources that they need for a quality education year in and year out?
For answers to these and other questions, I consulted educators, advocates, and parents. Here’s what I learned:
Fundraising is an education funding Band-Aid. A very small Band-Aid.
In 2012, the State Supreme Court determined that Washington’s public schools are under-funded, and mandated the Legislature to fully fund them by 2018. But at its current rate, the Legislature will not do so until 2028-29, according to Tom Ahearne, attorney for the plaintiff in McCleary. While fundraising may work for schools in affluent areas, it fails in low-income communities.
Tanya Hansen, whose three children attended Sunset Elementary in Issaquah, says the school does not want for anything, citing as evidence its 26 interactive white boards (cost: $90,000). She says this is due in no small part to the PTA’s fundraising (which included a biennial fundraiser-auction that netted about $200,000 last year). Though she was active in Sunset’s fundraising, Hansen describes it as “crazy” and “big business,” adding, "It's one fundraiser after another. It’s like they’re asking for money all the time.”
When I ask Southeast Seattle Education Coalition (SESEC) program director, Katherine Barr, about local school fundraising, she stops to think: “Dunlap raised about $15,000 last year.” At Dunlap Elementary, 87 percent of students receive a free or reduced lunch. Barr and colleague Yalonda Gill Masundire, SESEC's school/community based organizations partnership coordinator, rattle off reasons that parents don’t raise more money: working two jobs, language barriers (Dunlap students speak over 11 languages), cultural barriers, lack of child care and lack of transportation.
Without benefit of greater fundraising, schools like Dunlap are unlikely to have the staff they need, never mind interactive white boards, according to Sharrone Navas, executive director of the Equity in Education Coalition. She says that in low-income areas, “schools will often have a part-time or quarter-time” nurse and counselor. Barr agrees, saying that local principals begin the school year with questions like, “Do I have an assistant principal or a counselor? Music or P.E.?”
Selling cookie dough is good. Widespread, ongoing citizen action directed at the Washington State Legislature is better.
The Network for Excellence in Washington Schools (a coalition of 420 community groups, school districts and education associations that filed the McCleary lawsuit) suggests this: “A groundswell of grassroots support for significant K-12 education funding increases this legislative session can make all the difference [in funding public education]. But advocates wonder if a successful groundswell — at least this year, anyway — is likely. There are several reasons for their doubt:
- Not enough supporters: Melissa Westbrook, a long-time education activist who blogs about Seattle public education issues, believes that parents would prefer fundraising for their local schools instead of organizing on a statewide issue. Ahearne, the McCleary case attorney, says, “Kids don’t vote,” and other public education supporters don’t constitute enough of a voting bloc to effectively advocate more funding.
- Not enough time: According to Sharonne Navas, “It’s hard to rally parents to advocate for funding when they are working two jobs, living in a sub-par apartment and barely making enough to buy food for their family.”
- Not enough change: Jesse Hagopian,a Garfield High School teacher and education activist, says that even after demonstrations at the Capitol, civil disobedience, the McCleary decision and the advocacy of teachers’ unions “year after year, …the Legislature is still dragging its heels.”
Westbrook cites advocates’ work to pass Initiatives 728 and 732 in 2000, which funded smaller class sizes and mandated yearly raises, respectively, and which the Legislature repealed and sabotaged. “What’s changed?” she asks.
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