It was the kind of news for which the word “blanch” was made: A year and a half ago, the Los Gatos school district near San Jose, California, received word that $800,000 would be cut from its budget for the following school year. Even more devastating was the consequence: Fourteen teachers would be laid off. Horrified by the prospect, parents immediately took action, blanketing the community with “pink slip” solicitation brochures as part of an ambitious fund-raising drive to pay the salaries themselves.
In just six weeks, the Los Gatos Education Foundation raised $1 million—an impressive figure, considering the group had never raised more than $200,000. The money saved teachers’ jobs and kept class sizes low. But with the state budget outlook no better this year, the foundation is still paying teacher salaries, and that million- dollar stopgap has now become an annual fund-raising target.
Los Gatos isn’t unique. As school budgets have continued sliding in the past few years, parents across the country have gone into crisis mode to save teaching jobs. Many find themselves footing the bill in subsequent years; in wealthy communities with well-organized parents, school funding is essentially becoming a public-private partnership. “There’s definitely a drive in communities to self-fund,” says Alicia Barton, LGEF president.
For less-affluent communities, however, self-funding isn’t an option. In the Hopkins School District near St. Paul, Minnesota, where 15 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, parents this past year faced a fiscal hole nearly identical to their counterparts’ in Los Gatos: a $1.3 million deficit that would have resulted in lost jobs for 26 teachers this year. Unlike the California community, though, local pockets weren’t deep enough to compensate. Although parents set a $1 million goal, they could only scrape together $200,000—enough to save the jobs of four teachers and maintain class sizes, but not enough to sustain a fund-raising effort in future years. “We’re never going to be able to raise the kind of money from parents that we should be getting from the state,” says Kris Newcomer, one of the parent organizers. Because budget numbers for next year are still in flux, it’s not known how many teachers will lose their jobs next year, but the community is bracing for the worst.
The disparity between districts that can raise enough money to offset state budget cuts and forestall layoffs and those that can’t is a concern among observers of educational equity. “Education is supposed to be the great equalizer,” says Leslie Getzinger, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of Teachers. “If you have affluent areas and affluent parents that can make this extra contribution, it’s really taking that away. We don’t want to see a two-tiered school system.”
Parents in wealthier districts have always raised more money than others, but that money often went toward “extras,” such as music education or class trips. No organization tracks private spending on public school teacher salaries specifically, but experts in the field say they see a fundamental shift taking place in the way such funds are used. “It’s a different can of worms between a one-time expense to equip the arts-and-crafts classroom versus using private funds to pay salaries,” says Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley. “We’re sort of going back to the Middle Ages, where parents shelled out their own money to hire private tutors.”
Such concerns have prompted some districts to ban or restrict parent fund-raising for teacher salaries. The Shawnee Mission School District in Kansas, for example, does not allow fund- raising for instructional positions, although parents can chip in for a nurse or guidance counselor. In Palo Alto, California, money raised for supplemental staffing is distributed equally across the district—parents are not allowed to give to just one school.
For districts that do allow private donations, one certainty is that the next school fund-raiser won’t be the last. “We have a public-private partnership, like the University of Texas or Texas A&M,” says Jan Peterson, executive director of the Highland Park Independent School District Education Foundation. The group, located in wealthy Highland Park, Texas, worked with the local PTA to raise $1.4 million last year, spending $500,000 to give 391 teachers a raise this school year. “It’s something that’s going to be ongoing for us.”