A former student was hired as a supplemental reading specialist at a school in which most – but not all – students had passed the state literacy exams. The parents at this high-income school made it a goal to attain the highest test scores in the district, and then raised money themselves to hire an extra teacher to boost literacy scores. A few years later, this same school hired another graduate of our program as a science specialist, a position again funded by parent fund-raising. Across the district, my grad students who teach there tell me, children have very little time a week with stretched literacy specialists and most professional development time is spent trying to figure out how to lift more kids over the “pass” mark on state tests so that dire things aren’t done with the schools’ federal funding.
In another nearby district, parents in the northern schools raise tens of thousands of dollars each year in a school auction, while schools in the southern part of the district have trouble organizing PTAs, as many parents are immigrants moving in and out of nearby apartment buildings. A principal friend in one of the south end schools joked that she was going to submit a grant proposal to the PTA of the wealthiest northern school, but I don’t think that she actually ever did it.
In yet another district, many parents in one school work for a Big Name tech company, and one parent donated an entire computer lab to his son’s elementary school. A teacher in a different school in the district with much more diverse students told me a few months ago that 20 minutes of every hour of computer time for her students is spent trying to get their aging equipment to boot up and to connect to the inadequate internet. Many of the kids just give up.
This private fund-raising to fill gaps left by widespread budget cuts has been something of a dirty little secret in education. My new teacher education students are often somewhat shocked when we talk about it. And they are more shocked when they hear how much many teachers pay out of their own pockets for classroom materials.
All of this, of course, merely masks how inadequately schools are funded and –more importantly — how higher income parents can shelter their own children from the effects of budget cuts. When studies are done on the effects of school funding on achievement, these hidden, private funds are of course not included in the calculations. It seems fair to ask whether *all* parents might invest more in the cause of adequate funding for schools if this private fund-raising were not an option.
The excellent publication Teaching Tolerance has called out this dirty little secret in this excellent essay that includes examples of districts in which parents can raise money only for the district, not only for their own children’s schools.
We need to be talking much more about this, naming the ethical issues in allowing some parents to privately fund their children’s public schools while still claiming to be providing equal opportunity.
Update: In the New York lawsuit over ending tenure for teachers so that all children have access to good teachers (an equity argument), we hear one of the plaintiff parents explain that a bad teacher is one who does not spend her own money on basic classroom materials that the district has not provided.
Washington Post columnist Valerie Strauss weighs in:
But it is troubling when the lead plaintiff in an important lawsuit describes a “good” teacher as one who spends personal money to buy school supplies for kids and who gives young kids homework. In this definitional exercise, that means a”bad” teacher is someone who doesn’t do either thing. That’s beyond wrong. It’s scary.