Families & the Community

Parent, Community Groups Pressed to Fill K-12 Budget Gaps

By Nora Fleming — March 13, 2012 9 min read
Adama Dembele talks to 5th graders after an African drum and dance lesson at Vance Elementary School in Asheville, N.C., among the efforts funded through the Asheville City Schools Foundation.
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In states and school districts still struggling to recover from recession-induced funding cuts, parent and community groups are feeling the pressure to raise money for instructional staff, academic programs, and other services that districts once fully paid for but can no longer afford.

Today’s fundraising efforts help with far more than classroom supplies or extras. In some places, dollars raised by PTAs and independent education foundations are supporting music and arts instruction, library resources, and professional development.

And the sums can be significant: The Denver Public Schools Foundation, for example, raised more than $10 million last year to finance after-school programs, in-school health services, and math and science initiatives for the 81,000-student district.

“Unfortunately, districts today are balancing their budgets on the backs of parents and the community,” said Betsy Landers, the president of the National Parent Teacher Association, based in Alexandria, Va. “Parent fundraising is a double-edged sword. It helps local schools, but it also gives an ‘out’ to decisionmakers when making cuts because parents can raise the difference. We’re caught in a conundrum: We can fund-raise to supplement education, but we shouldn’t be.”

Spurred in part by frustration about that changing role, many of those groups have also increased advocacy efforts targeted at overhauling state and federal policies they believe have underfunded public education.

Meanwhile, the flood of private dollars into school-level operations and essentials has exacerbated long-standing debates about equity between schools and districts. In response, some communities have tried to encourage equity of resource distribution, while others have avoided taking any action that might squelch contributions they’re relying on more and more.

Growing Interest

Adama Dembele teaches 5th graders about African drumming at Vance Elementary School in Asheville, N.C., with the aid of a local foundation that helps bring artists into schools. The foundation also wants to engage parents in schools beyond fundraising.

Even as some states’ revenues are starting to improve from the impact of the Great Recession, a rise in private giving has alleviated lingering budget woes in many communities where contributions to districts can reach into the millions of dollars.

As of 2007, the National Center for Charitable Statistics, at the Urban Institute in Washington, reported that 19,000 nonprofit organizations, small and large, were devoted to supporting public education nationwide, a number that had doubled since 1997. Today, the center estimates the number to be even higher. In 2007, such organizations raised a total of $4.3 billion.

In addition to the help of traditional PTAs and other parent-volunteer groups, districts’ financial needs have spurred the growth of new fundraising organizations such as independent education foundations, which many communities see as a means of raising larger sums of money and having a greater impact on districts.

In some communities, foundations have stemmed from collaborative school-PTA efforts; in others, the foundations have evolved as separate community endeavors. Such groups vary greatly nationally in target, focus, and distribution of funds, according to Jim Collogan, the executive director of the National School Foundation Association, a Des Moines, Iowa-based organization of 1,200 to 1,300 member foundations.

More populous states, like California, Texas, Florida, and New York, tend to have more foundations than other states. In Florida alone, 57 of the state’s 67 districts have foundations, which in total raised $41 million last year.

‘Incredibly Disheartened’

Though parent and community leaders say they are willing to do what they can to keep budget cuts from hurting their local schools, many are dismayed by the prospect of continuous fundraising.

“I am incredibly disheartened by the need for all this caused by the disinvestment in public education in our country and the resulting inequities,” said Lisa Frack, the chairwoman of the Buckman Foundation, a local elementary school foundation in Portland, Ore.

“No one is stepping up to solve the problem in a realistic, long-term way,” she said. “Even though we have a shared system through the local school foundations, the time required of parents to fund-raise would likely be much better spent in the classrooms, volunteering with their children.”

State and district fiscal pressures have also pushed some PTA leaders to boost advocacy efforts. For PTA leaders, advocacy work is seen as more in line with the organization’s core mission, a focus, some say, that has been neglected as pressure to raise money has increased.

The Washington State PTA’s legislative advocacy was successful in the passage of legislation in 2010 that restructures how state funding is allocated. And most recently, the PTA there was part of a lawsuit charging that the state had failed to fund schools to the extent required by the state constitution, a claim upheld by the state supreme court this January.

The California State PTA is currently advocating for one of the proposed tax initiatives on their state’s November 2012 ballot, which would raise a projected $10 billion to $11 billion annually through a temporary progressive income-tax increase that would help support California’s schools.

Foundations, too, are going beyond fundraising and into advocacy.

The Voice of Florida Business in Education, a group of 1,100 business leaders who sit on the boards of the state’s education foundations, lobbies state officials on education policies it believes should be amended and supports initiatives that would encourage career pathways for students and bolster Florida’s economy.

In Florida’s Tampa Bay area, the Pinellas Education Foundation, one of the highest-grossing education foundations in the country, is also getting involved in advocacy more directly with the 102,000-student Pinellas County school district. Board members from the foundation, which has raised more than $110 million since 1986 and $5 million last year alone, are advising district leaders on how to cut costs and operate more efficiently using best business practices, according to Terry Boehm, the foundation’s president.

For smaller districts, local foundations’ advocacy efforts have often been collaborative efforts.

In Asheville, N.C., the Asheville City Schools Foundation has tried to support the small but diverse district of 4,000 students by using more than just community dollars. Drawing from the area’s vibrant arts community, the foundation has brought local artists into the schools to teach classes. The foundation also has worked with businesses to encourage residents to shop locally using a “Go Local” card, the proceeds of which support school programs and foundation grants.

The Asheville foundation is also trying to figure out ways to encourage parent engagement outside of fundraising. It found that many parents were unaware of differences in fundraising levels between schools, and that many low-income parents were discouraged about getting involved in their children’s schools because of the increasing push to raise money.

“The pressure to raise more money each year to meet the budget shortfalls limits the way parents engage in their child’s school,” said Leah Ferguson, a co-director of the foundation. “We’ve found that families who have limited resources see the only access point for involvement in education to be fundraising. They want to be engaged, but don’t see that as meaningful engagement.”

Equity Concerns

Yet as many parents and community members have increased fundraising to deal with budget pressures, not all communities have been able to do so equally.

Large urban centers with high levels of poverty have been hit the hardest by the recession, because, in addition to cuts in public funding, parents there have a limited ability to fill in budget holes with money from their own pocketbooks, said Daniel A. Domenech, the executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based American Association for School Administrators.

“There is a growing inequity between districts that can raise funds and those that can’t. If parents in a community don’t have the financial resources to contribute, there isn’t much a district can do,” said Mr. Domenech.

Other districts, however, have tried to mitigate equity concerns between their schools. Some, like the 146,500-student Montgomery County, Md., school district, have adopted policies regulating what private donations can pay for, in its case, barring their use for instructional staff. Other districts have supported specific programs that reach out to their needier students.

In Oregon, the Portland district’s education foundation, All Hands Raised, receives money from 39 separate school foundations that contribute a third of the funds they raise over $10,000.

Using a weighted formula, All Hands Raised distributes “equity grants” ranging from $20,000 to $40,000, on average, to schools with the highest need. Last year, $845,000 was donated to Portland schools through equity grants.

The Portland school foundations and equity-grant recipients use the money to pay for school staffing. For the 2010-11 school year, district schools used equity-pool funding and other foundation donations to pay for 110 staff positions in total.

“Neighborhoods helping other neighborhoods across town that do not have the same capacity to raise funds is a concrete demonstration that we care about the well-being of all of our kids,” said Dan Ryan, the chief executive officer of All Hands Raised. “I wish the parents didn’t have to do this, but parent engagement in raising funds for schools is part of the culture we live in today, and we’ve accepted this.”

Yet the shift to sharing resources through districtwide fundraising doesn’t always come easily. According to Rochelle Fanali, a member of the California State PTA School Equity Work Group, the rise in California’s education foundations has often initially been met with pushback from parents who want their money to go to their child’s school rather than be shared across the district. But the transition to centralized fundraising becomes smoother, she said, as foundations and PTAs set distinct, transparent targets and goals.

For foundations to raise money successfully districtwide, there must also be strong support from the district administration and school board, which many communities do not have, she added.

“If you ask parents in communities where they’ve moved to a districtwide fundraising model if their contributions are going to their children’s schools, they will say yes because that’s how they fund-raise in those communities, and that’s how they pay for the programs parents care about the most,” Ms. Fanali said. “Parents care less about who they write a check to, and more about what that money pays for in their child’s school.”

Striking a Balance

Carol M. Frankel, an education professor emeritus at the University of Puget Sound-Tacoma who has researched school foundations since the mid-1990s, said inequities are bound to exist when private giving touches public education, no matter what efforts districts undertake to equalize donations.

Any policies or practices on private giving should be carefully implemented, she said, so as not to turn away more affluent families from public education who are assets to public schools through their resources, lobbying, and the diversity they create with lower-income families.

But the rise in private giving also has some concerned that policymakers are neglecting larger issues of public school finance.

“Private giving is a distraction, as there isn’t enough private money in the world to pay for a high-quality education for every child,” said Amanda Broun, the senior vice president of the Public Education Network, an intermediary organization that supports large urban foundations. “Our focus instead should be on how we can ensure we are using the public resources we have well, and properly funding public education with them,” she said. “Public education is a public responsibility.”

Coverage of parent-empowerment issues is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the March 14, 2012 edition of Education Week as Parent, Community Groups Pressed to Fill K-12 Budget Gaps


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