Real state support for schools: A roadmap

A class project for a fundraising auction Credit: Jonathan Caves/Flickr

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.

Nevertheless, recent local grassroots organizing victories suggest that groundswells can matter. Consider Garfield High’s MAP test boycott, Kshama Sawant’s city council election, SeaTac workers’ minimum wage victory and equal marriage gains across the U.S. Maybe what has changed is the political climate.

There are a few other characteristics common to these recent grassroots groundswells: Each movement made a single, clear demand; was hard to ignore; and wouldn’t go away.

So maybe the question is, How can busy people who care about education create a focused, stubborn, cannot-be-ignored campaign that also overcomes the too-few -people and too-little-time barriers?

Here are three tried-and-true ways for activists to increase the return on their investment of time and energy:  

1. Organize the organizing. Activist groups often plan their work one action (e.g. a lobby day, generating constituent phone calls to legislators) at a time. Plan an entire organizing campaign instead. This allows you to identify and troubleshoot potential problems before they occur. It also helps campaign members get on the same page of the campaign playbook.

Hire staff to coordinate the campaign and do the things that volunteers don’t have the time or skills to do. A campaign collectively mounted by organizations throughout Washington could afford two full-time organizers (for the legislative session) if each organization contributed $100.

2.  Think self-interest. Not yours — theirs. To grow campaign membership beyond parents, students, school staff, and unions, ask yourself, Who might benefit from more funding for local public schools? Parents of pre-K kids? Realtors? Property owners? Business owners? Other unions? Tax policy organizations? Then ask yourself what will their participation possible (hint: carpooling, people to translate at meetings, child care, etc.)

3. Apply ongoing pressure for as long as it takes. And pace yourself. Victory comes more quickly when: a) your campaign members are determined to apply ongoing pressure for as long as it takes, and b) the other side knows it. To pace campaign members for the long haul, divide campaign work by legislative district and remind members of quick and easy advocacy opportunities.

For example, people in “swing” districts where elections are close could participate by applying ongoing pressure (e.g.  phone calls, emails, letters, tweets, town hall meetings, in-district meetings, and lobby days), and planning local organizing actions and tactics. Campaign members in “non-swing” districts could support “swing” district members, by doing support work, like preparing informational materials (for in-district visits, talking points for town hall meetings, etc.), and updating the campaign’s website.

So, picture this:

  • September – December: Campaign members email their legislators to advocate more funding and to see if they want to buy some cookie dough/magazine subscription/wreathes/other.
  • January: Advocates mount a kickstarter campaign, in each of their target districts, for textbooks, plumbing repairs and other embarrassing examples of the Legislature’s underfunding of education.
  • Lobby Day: Parents and students from all over Washington descend on the Capitol Campus and ask legislators: 1) how they plan to advocate more funding, and 2) if they could buy some candles, candy bars, magazine subscriptions, school calendars, raffle tickets, etc. (Then they reach into their backpacks and pull out the full array of wares they sell throughout the school year; someone takes a picture for the local paper.)
  • A couple days after Lobby Day: Each member solicits pledges from friends and neighbors. The friend/neighbor pledges that for the remainder of the legislative session, s/he will donate a certain amount of money to the local school for every time a “hold-out” legislator misrepresents the facts about education funding. Legislators’ misrepresentations are posted online, along with a barometer that tracks total amount of money raised.
  • Two weeks after Lobby Day: Advocates begin weekly bake sales outside of the offices (or town halls) of hold-out legislators. A big sign beckons passers-by to buy baked goods: Parents for Public Education Bake Sale – Fully Funding Education in Washington, One Cookie at a Time! 
  • March and April: Schools throughout Washington involve local legislators in their ubiquitous, upcoming annual dinner-and-auction fundraisers by: inviting respective holdout legislators to serve as table captains (i.e. buy 8-10 event tickets), honoring legislators who support public education, and (at the events) encouraging auction guests to contact hold-out legislators and urge them to do right by students.

This might or might not begin to change the dynamic. At the minimum, it would put legislators on notice that school supporters are organized and prepared to keep pushing their issue in ways that could influence legislators' political self-interest.

For exclusive coverage of the state government, check out Crosscut's Under the Dome page.

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