Parent-Led Fundraising Makes Some Schools Better but Leaves Others Behind

It doesn’t have to be that way.

A sign in a classroom that says "PTA spirit sale."
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by ChiccoDodiFC/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Not long ago, a penguin named Charlie visited my kids’ public elementary school. As Charlie toddled happily back and forth across the front of the cafeteria, the zookeeper regaled the kids with stories about the penguin’s habits and native habitat. The kids were allowed to pet the penguin and asked the zookeeper all kinds of questions about their pint-size visitor. (There was also a lot of giggling.)

Around the same time, a clarinetist from the local symphony serenaded the students during lunch, a published author provided a guest lecture, and the students sang and acted in a full-costume musical—all courtesy of the school’s parent-teacher organization. All around the school—on playground equipment, ceramics projects, audiovisual equipment, the vegetable garden—are cheery little signs that read, “Happily funded by the PTO.” At times, the PTO raises so much money that it cannot find ways to use it all; since the unspent funds can’t be carried over from year to year, there’s a springtime scramble to find something to spend it on.

Less than a dozen miles away is a school filled with kids who don’t have enough to eat. When teachers there are asked what they need for their students, they don’t say laptops or visits from penguins. They say pencils, paper, and food.

Across the country, imbalances like these are incredibly common, and in many cases, the contrasts are far more dramatic than ours: In New York City, for instance, the William T. Sherman Elementary School raises a jaw-dropping $1.5 million per year in parent donations (the school website helpfully proposes a “suggested family donation” of $960), while an elementary school less than three miles away has no parent fundraising at all—not because the parents don’t want to give but because so few of the parents have anything to spare.

The schools least able to raise money—because the parents earn lower wages, lack connections to wealthy corporate donors, work multiple jobs, or work shifts with inflexible schedules that make it hard to volunteer—are the ones that need it the most. More than 70 percent of the nation’s wealthiest PTOs serve schools where fewer than 1 in 10 students come from low-income families. Most of the parents at my kids’ school have cars and can afford both the gas money and the hefty entrance fees at the aquarium. For a single mom who lives two bus rides away from the zoo, works the night shift at a nursing home, and supports her kids on $20,000 a year, it would be a much heavier lift. Without a school field trip, her child might never get there at all.

And this isn’t just about “extras.” As states chip away at education funding, schools are increasingly looking to parents to fund essential nuts-and-bolts items the state once provided. In some schools, parent fundraising can mean the difference between having textbooks and not having them, having a class of 30 students versus a class of 15, or having two reading specialists or none at all.

At first, the disparity in education funding seems like yet another dismal symptom of American inequality that the average person can’t do much to change. But it doesn’t have to be. And in some schools, it isn’t. Across the country, creative parents have found ways to address the inequality in parent-raised funds.

When Edgar Road Elementary School in suburban St. Louis held a book fair for its students, all of the money raised was sent 12 miles away, to Farragut Elementary, a St. Louis city school where 99 percent of the children qualify for free or reduced school lunch (a proxy measure for poverty). With the donation, the librarian at Farragut was able to buy $800 worth of brand-new books for her students.

When Frostwood Elementary School in suburban Houston holds its annual car wash, it often raises up to $3,000, which it then donates to Housman Elementary, a school just seven miles away where nearly 90 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced school lunch.

In the Hawthorn School District northwest of Chicago, parents from nine elementary and middle schools join a single districtwide PTO that organizes fundraisers, like cookie-dough sales and school “spirit wear” sales, that run simultaneously at all schools. Afterward, the money is pooled and then distributed among schools on a per student basis. Each school has a vice president on the PTO board, and that person organizes activities such as class parties and ice cream socials at her own school.

Since not all schools have the same ability to raise money—the number of students on free or reduced lunch at each school ranges from 18 percent to 50 percent, which suggests that parents at different schools might have varying abilities to contribute—one might expect parents from the top fundraising schools to object. But that’s not the case, says PTO President Wendy Elman. “We’ve always done it this way, and it’s not something that we’re always having to defend or anything.” While there are occasional objections, Elman says, “Parents generally like the fact that they don’t have competing fundraisers within their own district, and I think they like knowing that whatever they donate, it goes back to our entire community.

“This is about the kids, and just making sure every kid has the same opportunities, and for the most part our parents are supportive of that.”

In terms of total dollars, the most impressive example of sharing parent-raised funds across a community would have to be Portland, Oregon. Last year, Portland Public Schools’ parents raised $3.8 million and shared $1.1 million with students within their district but outside of their own kids’ school walls.

How do they do it? Parents raise money for individual foundations in their own schools, and if they raise $10,000 or less, they keep all of it. If they raise more than that, one-third of every dollar raised beyond the $10,000 threshold is put in a pot, which is then distributed, according to a formula, to the Portland schools with the highest need.

Without the shared funds, more than three-quarters of the budget for student activities and involvement at his school would evaporate, says Lavert Robertson, principal of George Middle School, where 90 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Robertson has used the funds to hire an after-school math intervention teacher, purchase classroom Chromebooks, and fund a variety of enrichment activities for students.

Robertson appreciates that the funding allows for creativity. “A few years ago, I noticed that we had a group of young men who were not connected or engaged in school, but they loved one thing: playing basketball,” he says. With money from the shared fund, he started a team, but he was strategic about it: He set it up so that practice followed after-school tutoring sessions, so players would go to tutoring first and then to practice, and they had to maintain a certain GPA and attendance record to keep playing. “All of a sudden, we just saw a surge in their attendance, and a huge rise in their GPAs. You could visibly see the difference in their level of engagement with school,” says Robertson. “It was amazing.”

The funds shared across the districts are raised by parents but are not PTO dollars (though many Portland schools also have PTOs). They’re funds donated to individual school foundations, most of which were established after the passage of a statewide measure that gutted education funding in the mid-1990s. When parents saw formerly standard features of their kids’ public education—art, gym, music, reading intervention, school nurse—being cut, they started raising money to try to pay those teachers’ salaries themselves.

At the wealthier schools, parents could simply write checks large enough to pay the salaries of the teachers and staff they wanted back. But the parents at other schools couldn’t. In response, the school board established a framework for sharing the wealth, to ensure an equitable education for every student. It created an umbrella organization for any school’s parents who wanted to start a foundation to raise money for their own school and drew up guidelines that called for shared funding. While the money was initially distributed according to a competitive granting process, organizers switched to a formula-driven model when they realized that the schools most likely to need the grants were the least likely to have anyone with the time or resources to write one.

Different fund-sharing methods make sense for different kinds of districts. Fund-sharing within a uniformly wealthy district, for example, wouldn’t make a lot of sense. And what makes the Hawthorn and Portland models so effective is that the fund-sharing is baked in to the process. Rather than simply giving parents or PTOs the option to donate, these districts build it into the structure of what they do so that every year, principals like Robertson know that the funds will be there for their students when they need it.

Even with these forward-thinking initiatives, it’s tragic that parents have to go to such lengths to raise money for public education in the first place. Thomas Jefferson believed that public education was part of the foundation of democracy, yet in 29 states, there was less overall state funding per student in 2015 than there was seven year prior, in 2008. The prospect of robust, equitable public education funding in the future seems uncertain at best.

“I would love nothing more than to work ourselves out of this model and get to the point where we have fair and equitable state funding across the board for all schools, because that is what the promise of public education is supposed to be,” says Portland parent Amy Kohnstamm. “I think everyone would like to see the need for this kind of parent fundraising go away.”

Until then, she’s more than willing to share.