The Power of a Wealthy PTA

Thanks to parents’ donations, some public schools can afford shiny extras like coding classes, camping trips, and classroom iPads.

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Parent-teacher associations, or PTAs, are generally considered quaint and charming at best, and innocuous at worst. Run by volunteers, they are known for organizing bake sales and holiday parties, and buying gifts for Teacher Appreciation Day.

But PTAs, despite their wholesome reputation, can also wield significant financial power, helping determine which programs a school can afford to offer. A PTA at a well-off school might raise a million dollars or more to pay for additional teachers’ salaries, band or orchestra instruments, a new library, iPads for classrooms, field trips, or other initiatives.

Other PTAs can’t afford things like that, which can give different schools, even those close to one another, vastly different resources. When I toured pre-K schools for my son in New York City, I was surprised by how different the offerings were at sought-after schools in our area. Some had free violin lessons, yearly camping trips, and coding classes, in addition to art, science, and music teachers. My son ended up at a school that was close to where we live and felt friendly to us, though it didn’t have many “enrichments” beyond what regular classroom teachers provide.

I later learned that most of the shiny extras (and even some full-time aides and specialty subject teachers) at the other schools were funded by PTAs with budgets in the six and seven figures. Our school’s PTA had less than a thousand dollars in the bank. New York City’s public schools get funding for their core services mostly on a per-student basis (schools where 40 percent or more of students are from low-income households get additional money under a federal provision called Title 1), but PTAs account for many differences in funding for auxiliary programs.

Other things are also responsible for disparities between many schools in the United States—notably, in some communities, higher property-tax revenues in affluent neighborhoods can mean bigger school budgets—but PTAs, and the money they funnel into schools, play a role too. A 2017 report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress found that of the roughly $425 million that America’s PTAs collectively raise each year, about a tenth is spent at schools attended by just one-tenth of 1 percent of the country’s students. Different districts have different rules about PTAs’ activities and financial reporting, but few districts put caps on the amount of money that can be raised, strictly regulate how PTAs spend their money, or mandate that funds be spread around equally within a district.

Linn Posey-Maddox, an associate professor of educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the author of When Middle-Class Parents Choose Urban Schools, told me that she believes it shouldn’t fall to parents to directly pay for a school’s art or music program, let alone necessities such as classroom materials. She’d like to see more funding for education overall, but as long as PTAs are left to account for the current shortfalls and thus help determine schools’ offerings, Posey-Maddox told me she sees a need for policies that mandate “deliberation around resource allocation”—the larger point being that students’ access to a good education shouldn’t be linked to their parents’ fundraising capabilities.

Some districts try to account for how parents’ fundraising creates a tiered system of public schools. For instance, in Seattle, some well-funded schools now voluntarily share a small portion (typically about 5 percent) of their PTA funds with nearby schools that have less money. Vivian Van Gelder, a former PTA president of a well-resourced public elementary school, was one of the parents who helped add a fund-sharing initiative to her school’s yearly PTA budget a few years ago. She said the change was initially met with some pushback from parents who were adamant that their donations stay at their children’s school, and noted that the original budget item passed by only a small margin last year. Van Gelder calls this arrangement “a start”—she’d like to see the system for educational funding overhauled more broadly.

Portland, Oregon, implemented a similar system, which has been around for a lot longer. In the mid-’90s, during a budgetary crisis, parents at many better-funded schools complemented PTAs by establishing school-specific fundraising foundations that could pay for additional staffing. Recognizing how this could lead to inequity, the Portland school district required that a central foundation serving under-resourced schools be created and that when the school-specific foundations spent money, they’d give an additional amount—roughly a third of whatever they spent—to that central foundation.

But Helen Shum, a parent of two children at a school in Portland, pointed out the limits of this system. First, if an expenditure falls outside the purview of the foundation—for instance, if money is spent on buying school supplies or building a science lab—no extra money needs to be set aside for other schools. And second, parents’ contributions to schools don’t just come in the form of financial resources, but money is all that this policy addresses. “The scope of parent volunteerism [at these schools] is next-level—it’s like a second level of staff,” she told me. For instance, her daughter had been tutored for years by an engineer turned stay-at-home dad. While underfunded schools may also have parents who are willing to help, those parents’ involvement can be limited by less predictable work schedules and the different relationships they might have with public institutions.

Further, even if PTAs’ resources weren’t spread out so unevenly, their overall approach to helping schools doesn’t resonate with all parents. D. L. Mayfield, whose child goes to a school in Portland where 94 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, said that she and other parents feel “cast aside” by the “dominant cultur[al] model” of PTAs; they generally aren’t inspired to organize fundraising efforts to support a system that they don’t consider to be fair. “I think parent groups should focus less on raising money and more on advocating for systemic change,” she told me.

One of the more promising models for making PTAs a more equalizing force tries to account for the attitudes of parents at both well-funded and underfunded schools. It’s called the PTA Equity Project, and it’s run by two parents named Suni Kartha and Elisabeth Lindsay-Ryan in Evanston, Illinois, outside Chicago.

Three years ago, out of a shared concern about uneven PTA fundraising—Kartha’s children went to an under-resourced school, Lindsay-Ryan’s to a more affluent one—they gathered data on PTA funding at their district’s 18 elementary schools. They found that per-student parent-raised funding across their district ranged from $0 a student at some schools to almost $300 a student at others, and to remedy these imbalances, they began presenting some well-funded PTAs with their data and a suggested percentage that they could voluntarily divert to schools with smaller budgets.

In general, these suggestions have been received well, which likely has to do with their approach: “The start of the conversation is saying, ‘No one wants to punish anyone. No one is doing anything wrong,’” Kartha said. “Our goal is to help people broaden their lens and think about the district as a whole.” Kartha and Lindsay-Ryan noted that some parents from under-resourced schools said they felt heard as well, as they were able to share their perspective with other PTAs and ask for help advocating for reforms at the district level, as opposed to just having an opportunity to request financial support.

Of course, Evanston’s parents might be particularly amenable to a program like this one, given the city’s progressive leanings; the same model might not work elsewhere. And while a handful of districts around the country are experimenting with ways to make funding more equitable, many are not. The challenge, as Posey-Maddox sees it, is that most parents are reluctant to have “hard conversations” about the extent to which “the system enable[s] their child to hoard opportunities.” Ultimately, though, she favors fixes that would take the onus off individual parents to correct for an unfair system themselves. This is why she thinks it would be helpful to have more robust government funding of education overall.

When parents choose a well-funded school or write a check to their school’s PTA, it can be hard for them to see all the schools that aren’t receiving any of their money. New York City is trying to make these differences between schools a bit more visible: About a year ago, it passed a measure that will require schools to publish how much money PTAs raise, alongside demographic data about the race, ethnicity, and English-learner status of students at each school, by the end of this year. Of course, what parents will choose to do with this information remains to be seen. “Unfettered, middle- and upper-class parents will create policies to benefit their kids,” Posey-Maddox warns. New York’s improved PTA transparency and other districts’ like-minded efforts might make schools a bit more equitably funded, but realistically, a few parents’ altruistic efforts won’t be enough to fill big gaps in the American education system.