This past Sunday The New York Times published an article, Way Beyond Bakesales: The $1 Million Dollar PTA, and my Co-President and I were featured in front of the PS 87 mural. We’ve been waiting to see how this article would shape up since we gave Kyle Spencer a tour of our school a few weeks ago. It’s not an easy decision to talk to the press about our PA fundraising because it’s so easily taken out of context and on the surface it looks absurd. Since Kyle herself is a public school parent at a fairly affluent public school, and the articles she’s written before on the subject seem fair enough, we figured we should show her our absurdly run down, crowded school and be able to explain how and why we use the money we raise as we do. But, as with anything, it’s incredibly hard to really get a full picture from a brief article – especially one that is meant to attract as much buzz and comments as possible. Luckily for me, I have my own platform to write about what really goes on and why we raise this money.
First, the issue that bothered every parent at PS 87 – we don’t raise $1.57 million dollars. We raise about $700K. An enormous number to be sure, but no where near $1.57 million. That other $800K or so, that’s our after school program. It’s pretty amazing, was started over 30 years ago by a group of PS 87 parents, and has about 450 students enrolled across the 5 days. Parents pay for the classes just like they would any after school program and the program runs on those fees. No fundraising, no profit. But we report our income as one to the IRS. Hence, the total reported on GuideStar.
Second, as I tell all reporters who call us about this issue, I really wish they would look at the official DOE budgets for the schools in question. Believe it or not the budgets are fairly transparent. (Though don’t even try to ask a DOE official to explain the budget – they can’t.) No reporter EVER does this!!! Click on over to the budget. It’s fun! It’s actually awful, but since my Co-President and I have spent the last 2 years pouring over it, it passes as a good time for us. Let’s take that bottom number, heck, I’ll even round up to an even $6 Million. Now let’s divide that by the number of kids in our school: A super comfy 963. What does that leave you? $6,230/student. Take that Horace Mann! Now, for extra credit go ahead and plug in another school – any school, maybe one that doesn’t raise the kind of money we raise, and see what their per student funding looks like. Told you this was fun. Almost as much fun as charting the budget cuts over the last 5 years. 25% but who’s counting. (Oh yeah, that would be me)
Third – We pay the full price for every program we bring in. That sounds perfectly normal right? Well, no. Many schools in the city and beyond qualify for arts, chess, music, wellness and other programs for free. And they should. These foundations raise money from outside sources so they can provide enrichment in our public schools where it’s desperately needed, especially since these are the first programs to go in budget cuts. But, these programs charge schools like ours full price. What does that mean? If we want the Wellness In the Schools healthy lunch program we pay $25K for it. If we want a coach at recess we pay $30K for it. If we want chess we pay $30K for it (for only 2 grades, I should add.) And we are happy to do it, because we can and because our parent body and school have decided it’s a priority. But if we don’t raise the money we don’t get those programs.
What else wouldn’t we have? Books, paper, cafeteria tables, most of our chairs and desks, text books, art supplies, substitute teachers (what a luxury), and an endless litany of other things that once upon a time were the responsibility of a government to provide in the name of public education.
So what is the real problem here? As I’ve written before, raising this kind of money comes with all sorts of problems. Does it let the city and state off the hook? I hope not. And that’s the other bone I have to pick – not with the article but with many of the comments. If there’s one thing our parent body can’t be accused of it’s being politically apathetic. Sometimes my Co-President is the ONLY one at all of those ridiculous meetings that the DOE holds at night, where they pretend to care what parents think. And we are so in the face of the Chancellor, our elected officials, Albany, hell, we’ve even been to DC on more than one occasion, that one fine DOE official sent an email to someone high up I won’t name and told them to tell my Co-Prez to “back the fuck off.” Only he cc’d my Co-Prez by mistake. OOPS!
The reason we raise so much money is not because people can write a check. If it were that easy we’d have no fundraising committee and wouldn’t have hundreds of volunteers spending ridiculous amounts of energy and time planning, recruiting for and executing events all year long. Parental engagement at this level is exhausting and most of our parents work full-time. One of the most insulting aspects to the ignorant comments was this assumption that the vast majority of parents at our school can afford private school and expect the same experience at their public school. How being able to make a donation of $1K or even $5K to a school is the same as affording $40K to a private school is beyond me. But, aside from that – it’s absurd that parents wanting art, gym and text books is somehow akin to privilege. Everyone should be outraged that this is a reality, not that parents expect this for their children.
I could go on. And in person, trust me, I do. But what I want in the end is for everyone to realize that issues like PTA fundraising are NOT the real issue when it comes to inequality in our schools. Not by a long shot. Start with the incredibly shameful lack of commitment to quality public early education and Pre-K – that is the big division that is the hardest to ever make up. You would have thousands of kids entering Kindergarten ready and able to learn and start to recognize letters and numbers – imagine that. And then take it from there – to the lack of teacher training, kids living in poverty, lack of healthcare, on and on. Looking to a handful of PTAs to figure out a way to share their fundraising instead of asking Cuomo to pass the millionaire tax to fund our schools at adequate levels is absurd. And what a gift this whole “debate” has been to those powers-that-be. When is the New York Times going to do that story? That’s the real million dollar question.