Last week the New York Times published an article about parent fundraising in NYC schools where gentrification has taken hold and the tensions over who can or cannot give, who decides how much to ask for and what kind of tension this creates at a school. It’s no surprise to those of us entrenched in this process that there is a constant balancing act of making sure those that can give do, and those that can’t give financially are not made to feel like they are left out of what a school fundraiser is trying to achieve. As PA (no T at our school) Co-President I get the same emails every year – a chunk of parents say the $600 annual fund ask is way too low compared to other schools like ours, and some parents email to say that it’s too high and makes them feel bad they can’t make that number. Money is tricky that way. Everyone sees this amount as somehow personal instead of what it is: how much the PA spends per student in one year. With a 600K PA budget, that would be around $600 for us.
But, there is a much bigger issue here. Our PA budget has tripled in the last 5 years, and our fundraising has tripled as well. This has happened while our Department of Education budget (called Galaxy – you know, ’cause it’s sooo big?) has shrunk 20-25% in the same time frame. At least. Parents are now paying for furniture, paper, textbooks, part-time librarian, art supplies, professional development for our teachers, instrumental music, science kits and even substitute teachers (yes, you read that right.) Not to mention chess, assemblies, dance, movement, art and kindergarten assistants. It’s absurd. And it results in two huge problems: First, it lets the DOE and New York State off the hook for cutting school budgets over and over again. In the worst bit of irony this year, as parents seethed with anger that a 3rd testing day was added to the State Standardized Tests, we the parents had to foot the bill for the test prep materials. It’s criminal and unacceptable, but we had no choice.
The second problem that no one is talking about with all of this parental money now being used so that a school can function – not flourish – function, is the inevitable tension that’s created between the teachers, administration and the parents. When teachers have to rely on parent money to stock their classrooms, to pay for professional development, to fund new academic initiatives, both sides are left in an increasingly uncomfortable position. From the outside it looks like everyone should be thankful that parents are able to fill this gap. From the inside there is resentment and a feeling that all of this fundraising gives parents too much say in how teachers do their job.
I’ve come face to face with this tension more than once, especially this year as the Galaxy budget has been slashed to the point where only staff salaries are covered. When parent money is used to fund academic programming, parents want, and I think deserve, to understand how these programs will work. There is an opportunity for this to be an incredibly positive experience – teachers and parents working together to make amazing things happen for our kids. But there is an inherent inequality in the collaboration. Teachers are in charge of our kids, all day. The principal will make decisions about where to place our kids every year. While they may think parents hold all the power, in fact parents are fairly powerless. The money changes that to some degree, but not in a good way. Teachers see parents as being intrusive, overly demanding and, my favorite term, “crazy.” Parents see the teachers as being ungrateful, obstinate and dismissive. Meanwhile, all we want is the same thing – the best possible school for our kids.
So where does this leave us? After 5 years on the PA Executive Board of my school, including one as Co-Treasurer and two as Co-President, through two principals and 5 years of budget cuts I have to say we’re left in a terrible place. Every year I watch hundreds of our parents spend thousands of hours volunteering for our school, mostly to raise money. Most of them work full-time and then go home to their kids to do homework, projects, enrichment, whatever. And I hate to say it, but it makes me ill when I take a step back and look at it. I don’t know how we got to this place, but I know it’s not right. Last year I wrote that parents should riot in the streets. The right thing would be for all of this energy to be aimed at our politicians, to demand that the schools be funded so that all of these essential programs are funded by the city and state like they are supposed to be. If we can figure out how to really, effectively do that, our schools, parents, teachers, and ultimately our kids would be way happier and everyone could get on with what their real job is in this system.