Is Seattle finally getting a handle on its public-school fundraising problem? Several signs point to “Yes.”
First, there’s the Southeast Seattle Schools Fundraising Alliance, which Ed Lab reporter Monica Velez wrote about last week. The group of 15 schools is holding a joint spring Move-A-Thon fundraiser, pooling donations and money from sponsors and distributing it using a 50-50 model.
Each participating school will receive an even share of half the money raised, with the other half distributed according to an equity formula. Each school will receive between 5-12% of that second half, with schools enrolling more students of color, students receiving special education services, English-language learners and students experiencing homelessness receiving a greater share. That’s a huge help for participating schools that may have greater needs but have had trouble raising funds on their own.
In West Seattle, public grade-school PTOs have set up a Public School Equity Fund to shift some donations to neighborhood schools with access to fewer resources. This acknowledges the uncanny overlap between redlining in the 1930s and schools with higher percentages of students from low-income households today.
And for the past few months, a work group including representatives from Parent Teacher Associations, Parent Teacher Student Associations and independent PTOs has begun discussing how to make sure all kids are supported and have the tools they need to succeed, regardless of their school PTO’s fundraising capacity.
“That stuff makes a really big difference for our students,” said the work group’s co-chair Vivian Van Gelder, Seattle Council PTSA District 5 director.
These are important experiments in the district’s long struggle to deal with the fact that some schools’ PTOs can easily raise hundreds of thousands of dollars while others struggle for every dime.
Seattle’s not alone in this, of course. There are school districts across the country where students at one school make do with janky old playground equipment and falling-apart library books while their peers across town enjoy posh donated amenities.
But it’s especially urgent in school districts like ours, where fundraising dollars bankroll much more than teacher appreciation lunches and boxes of crayons. Here, schools with access to affluence might use donated dollars to supplement anemic state education funding, paying out-of-pocket for lunch monitors, librarians, reading specialists, math tutors, art teachers, school counselors and other resources that directly impact students’ ability to learn.
In 2012, then-Seattle Times reporter Brian M. Rosenthal analyzed $2.17 million in parent donations routed through the district’s central office. He learned that donations funded around two dozen school employee salaries back then, with schools in well-to-do neighborhoods receiving the lion’s share of the largesse.
He estimated that the expenditures accounted for only 40-60% of total PTO donations raised in the district, which does not keep a central list of such funding. The 2021-22 SPS grants inventory shows the problem is only growing. That list shows nearly three dozen school-based PTA groups used donations to fund or supplement staff salaries — often several positions — including nurses, librarians, language teachers and tutors. More than half the school groups’ contributions were north of six figures, topping out at $247,838 to help fund language-immersion instructional assistants at McDonald International Elementary School.
Some PTOs have voluntarily shared the wealth with others, but system wide solutions have been hard to come by. It’s tough to blame parents who want to support their children’s education. All but impossible to imagine a school principal declining their generous gifts.
The root of the problem, of course, is the district’s heavy reliance on donations — which will be a perennial temptation until state lawmakers get their acts together and fully fund necessary education expenses. In this climate, it’s easy to forget that PTOs weren’t originally intended as piggy banks. They were supposed to open lines of communication between parents and schools.
In 2019, the Seattle Council PTSA passed a resolution encouraging their 80-plus member groups to scale back fundraising and refocus on the association’s core mission: supporting students by engaging and empowering families.
A heavy reliance on fundraising isn’t good for affluent school communities, either, the resolution argued. It warps the relationship between school principals and parents, so that it’s “no longer one of authentic engagement and collaboration but instead one of grant-making and seeking.”
Big donors may assume their gifts entitle them to influence school decisions. Principals may only show interest in parent priorities if the request comes attached to a check.
But the council’s resolution was only a suggestion. These new initiatives might have teeth.
I don’t know about you, but I’m old enough to remember the old bumper stickers asking us to imagine a day when schools were amply funded and the military had to hold bake sales. Generations of students later, we’re still waiting. With state election season upon us, Washington voters should hold legislative candidates’ feet to the fire.
In the meantime, we should do what we can to make sure every student is supported by our generous community, no matter where in the city they live.
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