Donations are salve for painful cutsAdequate state funding is long-term answer
Every day, the budget picture seems to get worse for schools in California. In the last two years alone, schools have been cut by $17 billion, with another $2 billion in cuts proposed for 2010-11. Schools face cuts to libraries, and arts and music programs, as well as increased class sizes. Not surprisingly, some parents are fighting back by raising private funds to replace lost state funding.
Last spring, a group of parents in Cupertino Union School District raised $2 million to fund teacher salaries and keep their elementary school class sizes low. At San Francisco’s McKinley Elementary, parents are cheering after an anonymous donor wrote a check for $85,000 to save a Spanish language program at the school for this school year.
Parents contributing money to fund classroom needs isn’t new – the bake sale or car wash is a longstanding tradition in schools. But in today’s economic climate, parents are raising serious money to fund core educational programs, and this raises troubling questions about equity.
In San Francisco Unified, PTA officers estimate that parent fundraising contributes several million dollars a year to local schools, over and above the programs funded by several private foundations supporting our 55,000 students. The problem is that fundraising varies widely from school to school. A high-needs elementary school in one part of the city might raise $10,000 a year, while a similar-size school in a more affluent neighborhood might easily raise several hundred thousand dollars. The school district attempts to balance that disparity by using a weighted student formula, allowing state categorical funding to follow the highest-need students, but the unfortunate reality is that the higher-need schools feel the brunt of state budget cuts first.
This year, the inequities are particularly pronounced, because some PTAs are raising record amounts to fill the gaps at their schools. Sherman Elementary, one of the school district’s most sought-after programs, stepped up its efforts and raised $200,000 in 2009-10 – a 40 percent increase over the previous year. The extra funds will restore two teaching positions and provide a cushion for the school’s many parent-funded extras like a garden and a thriving arts program. The disparity between the programs offered at some sites and not others became so troubling to a group of parent leaders that they approached a local foundation, the San Francisco Schools Alliance, proposing a matching fund system that would ask local businesses and individuals to “match” funds raised by all the PTAs in the district, and then divide those funds equally among all the schools according to enrollment. Plans for the fund are moving ahead, but no one really knows how much more money can be raised by private donors in San Francisco.
Limitations of private funding
And there’s the rub: raising private money to offset state cuts is a great solution in the short run (at least for those communities that have adequate wealth), but is it sustainable or even desirable? Does it create equitable opportunities for all students? I would say no. A recently-filed lawsuit argues that the state’s system of funding schools is unsound, unstable, insufficient and unconstitutional, and I agree.
Returning to a system of local funding and local control is part of the solution, but as a trustee of an urban district, I remain concerned that needier students will be shortchanged if we simply localize funding without acknowledging that current funding levels are not sufficient. As a state, we need to take a hard look at what we collectively expect our schools to do, and what those expectations actually cost. New York did this, and after a successful school funding lawsuit, has added billions – yes! – to its education budget. According to Education Week, New York’s average per student expenditures are more than $5,000 higher than California’s.
If individual communities want to go over and above our common expectations, and people in those communities are willing to tax themselves to pay the premium, they should be able to do so (and without a supermajority!). But let’s at least make sure that we fund our schools at a level that meets the minimum expectations of all Californians. What’s good enough for New Yorkers should be good enough for us!
Rachel Norton has served on the San Francisco Board of Education since January 2009. Before her election to the school board, she served as San Francisco Unified School District Community Advisory Committee for Special Education, and as an active volunteer for Parents for Public Schools – San Francisco. In her professional life, she has worked as a writer and editor for Reuters Plc, The New York Times, CNet and Fora.tv.