It’s Not About the Cupcake

Birthday CupcakesThere are so many reasons to be frustrated by yesterday’s New York Times article At the PTA: Clashes over Cupcakes and Culture yesterday about fund-raising and PTA organizing by newcomer middle-class parents in schools that have long served primarily low-income kids.

First is the cluelessness of middle-class parents who, while they may have business savvy, cannot imagine “inclusion” that extends beyond offering poor kids charity.

Second is the taken-for-granted assumption that parents’ role in schools is to raise boatloads of money in their own kids’ schools rather than working for more equitable and generous funding for all schools.

And then there is the simplistic and sexist narrative of savvy white mom against poor moms of color, as if this is a personal cat fight and not a deeply structural problem.

And finally there are the multiple comments from readers that vilify poor parents who, writers claim,  must simply not be budgeting well, if they can’t afford the fund-raisers created by the middle-class moms.

As one of the scholars interviewed for the article notes, “it’s never just about the cupcake”.


In class, my students sometimes vent about the lack of “parent involvement” in their internships,  and a few turns into the conversation, it becomes clear that they’re assuming that all schools can and should have parent volunteers.   The subtext is that teachers are owed the volunteer time of the parents of kids in the classroom (and another few conversational turns make clear that they’re really talking about moms, so we have that conversation, too).

I challenge my students to imagine an architectural office in which it’s take for granted that in order to get full services, clients will have to send their parents  to run copies, do clerical work, raise funds for supplies, and stage annual “architect appreciation days” in which architects get special snacks and maybe car washes.

…and that these volunteer services are,  in fact, essential for the architects to do the most basic elements of their jobs.

They eventually giggle nervously at the idea.

Everyone understands that access to basic resources to do the job isn’t the clients’ problem.

And I know, I know, clients are paying for all of those things via fees. Yet they’re spared the diversion into cupcake sales and these sorts of skirmishes that are never about cupcakes but are deeply about struggles for dignity and belonging.

But I’m tired of schools – and parents — settling so easily on the support of volunteer labor and volunteer fund-raising instead of insisting that communities and states pay for the schools that they need, directly, and without all of this drama between moms, between moms and teachers, and from reporters who’d never expect readers to come in to run copies as a condition of access to their daily newspaper.

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