When PTAs Fill Funding Gaps, Schools in Poorer Areas Miss Out

Some schools can turn to parent groups to fund what the district does not, which leaves schools without an affluent parent base in the dust.The donated items at up for bid at Steck Elementary School’s annual auction reflect the commitment of both time and resources that the parents and teachers pour into this public school in the affluent Hilltop neighborhood of Denver.

Getaways to Crested Butte, spa treatments in Cherry Creek, silk scarves, loaded wine racks and gourmet food baskets went to the highest bidder Saturday night at the school’s major fundraising event, organized by the PTA.

As in years past, the most popular items were the class art projects and the offers of teacher time, like munchies and a movie with Mrs. Silver or a pizza party with Mrs. Herbert.

The Steck PTA raises as much as $100,000 each year with five fundraising events, says the group’s president, Tonya Sarina. Most of the money will go toward staffing extra paraprofessionals and a reading coach not funded by the district.

“We’ve made a commitment to keep our student-teacher ratio manageable – a paraprofessional in a class of 27 cuts that ratio in half,” Sarina said. “Our reading interventionist makes an immense difference for our students, and we fund that because we’re a school and we should be teaching everyone to read, whatever it takes.”

In the face of skyrocketing operating costs and lagging per pupil spending, PTA organizations in Colorado and across the country have become the fundraising arm of schools, says Lisa Weil, a parent at Steck and the policy director at Great Education Colorado, a nonprofit that lobbies for increased investment in public schools.

The extras that PTA organizations have traditionally funded, like out-of-town trips, are all but forgotten as many schools look to parent groups to fund the basics like art and music instruction, updated materials and capital improvements. But as much as it can benefit a local school, parent-led fundraising also leads to inequity among schools in the same district. Children attending schools in well-heeled neighborhoods reap the benefits, while schools in areas populated by lower income families without the extra time or money to participate in school fundraising may lose out.
“The fact that the quality of a school depends on the fundraising ability of the parents – that flies in the face of the constitutional principle of a free, quality system of public education,” Weil said.

Public schools are funded per pupil based on a complex formula that takes into account many factors including the size of the district, the cost of living, and the number of kids on free or reduced lunch. About 60 percent of school funding comes from the state’s general fund and the rest from local property taxes.

Some districts can get voters to approve ballot measures and bond issues to boost funding for local schools. But poorer districts where property values and incomes are lower usually don’t have that option and often make do with dilapidated buildings and outdated materials.

“Schools are can-do communities, and people have gotten used to the limitations,” Weil said. “When it comes to these funding issues, teachers and parents do whatever they can to fix it because the need is so immediate.”

Colorado spends $1,034 less per pupil than the national average, according to the 2007 Education Week Quality Counts. The state ranks 38th in student-teacher ratios and 43rd in the percentage of taxable income spent on K-12 education.

The lack of sufficient state funding of schools places the burden on parents, teachers, students and even local businesses to make up the difference.

Andy Carlson has two children in two public elementary schools and owns the Ace Hardware store on Broadway and Alameda. He and his wife donate to their children’s schools each year, and Carlson says there are at least 15 schools within a few miles of his business, all of which have hit him up for a donation at least once since he opened the store two years ago.

“It’s a great cause, probably the best cause, but it can be a real burden on a small business,” said Carlson, sipping a drink and eyeing the Steck auction items. “It’s an indication that our schools are way underfunded. In elementary school it’s the parents out fundraising. But in high school they send the kids. They come in and tell us how they have to buy their own books – it’s sad.”

Colorado PTA board member Michele Patterson laments the fact that the PTA, an organization created to be an advocate for children and smart education reform, has effectively morphed into a fundraising entity. Patterson says the national PTA, out of a desire to maintain equity within and across districts, discourages local units from fundraising for textbooks, furniture and other things that should be provided by the district. Ideally, she says, well-funded local chapters would donate money to poorer schools or use the money to host community activities to enrich the whole neighborhood, rather than just the students at one school.

“Something needs to be done to fix education funding not just in Colorado but around the country,” Patterson said. “When a school in a wealthy area can raise money and afford a computer for every child, but a school in a poorer area is lucky just to have a few computers, children in the poorer communities get left behind.”

At Colfax Elementary in west Denver, where nearly all students receive a free or reduced lunch, Principal Joanna Martinez can’t rely on parents to fund what the district doesn’t.

“We should be able to afford to do what we need to do in a public school without having to ask the parents for money,” Martinez said. “I know we are not there yet, but our parents are barely making it. Many of them work two or three jobs; we can’t ask them for much.”

Colfax receives more money per pupil being a Title 1 school. But even with the efforts of teachers who write grants to fund after school activities and reading programs, Martinez says she still doesn’t have enough money to meet the needs of all her students. While Steck was able to install a security camera and an outside intercom last year, Colfax is struggling to raise the funds for a school marquee.

“We beg a lot,” asking businesses and other entities to cover the cost of field trips and text books, Martinez said. “But there is no way we can match what affluent parents in affluent areas can bring to their kids’ schools.”

But even at Steck, one of the highest performing schools in the district, where scores of dedicated parents offer their time and money to improve the school, the scramble for funding never ends. To keep the student-teacher ratio down and to have the money to update classroom materials and go on a few field trips means parents are on the hook year after year to come up with the money. 

“It’s like you are on a treadmill,” Weil says, “running faster and faster just to stay where you are.”

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Kate Bernuth

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