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.