The Price of Public Education

Caleb’s school is having a fundraising drive. The PTA wants to get 85% of families to donate to its General Fund, which is used for everything you can imagine, short of paying teachers’ salaries. When I was PTA President at Liam’s school a few years back, fundraising was the hardest part of the job (second-hardest part of the job? Not screaming back at people who were–by screaming at me–screaming at the teacher/principal/DOE/their own childhood).

The PTA has been sending out fundraising emails all week, pushing class parents to remind parents that those classes who hit 85% participation will get to attend a magic show in the auditorium…while the non-compliant other classes sit in their desks doing math worksheets. It’s fundraising through parental guilt.

But one class parent has taken this fundraising really quite to heart. Here’s an email that circulated this morning (with all identifying details removed):

…At this stage, I would say that the option of making phone calls to parents who have not contributed should be considered as well. Phone calls would help get something out of at least 50% of those who have not contributed at all. We should aim to get at least a dollar out of everyone as a token of their support for PTA. This strategy will definitely take us over the 80% mark.

III. The three Kindergarten classes deserve applause for their amazing participation rate.

I am surprised to see that XXX class has not attained the 80% mark. The XXX Class parents need to do more. I am sure, with more effort this number can be improved. I am willing to send out emails to XXX class families  but don’t want to override Class parents. We can do it if we think “Failing is not an option here”

Clearly XXX class will be taken to the thumbscrew room and tortured until they all pony up.

To her credit, the Chair of Fundraising (read: volunteer mom, who also has a full-time job) emailed a response that reminded this parent about the reality of life in public school: a huge range of incomes and cash-flow situations; families without easy email access; families for whom English isn’t even the second language but the third or fourth; and so on.

Other than my own college experience, I have never been in a private school, so maybe it’s a whole different vibe in that realm. Maybe when you send your kid to private school you implicitly agree to be part of the phonathons, or to ante up thousands of dollars at the school auction, in addition to giving outright to the general fund–and I imagine that if you’re a family on financial aid at these schools, it might feel a little weird. A friend of mine, whose son went to a really ritzy school for a little while (on a full scholarship) said that the unwritten rule seemed to be financial aid parents did the scut work, while the big donors just… wrote checks.

But public schools are free, right? Our tax dollars at work and all that? Which is why of course some folks (New Jersey, I’m talking to you, but alas,you’re not alone) protest tax hikes aimed at bolstering dwindling education budgets: if they don’t have any kids in schools, then the failing schools aren’t their problem. Other parents think that hey, the school gets its money from school budgets and so why should they throw in extra cash? It’s public school, not private school, so there shouldn’t be any fundraising.

Now I could turn my attentions here to Cathie Black, who went to a private Catholic high school in Chicago, a private Catholic college in DC, sent her kids to boarding schools in Connecticut (to the tune of about 45K per year) — and of course she herself lived in CT until a few short years ago, when she moved to the Upper East Side, a neighborhood not known for its failing schools.  And I could ask what on earth Cathie knows about life in public school or I could wonder, as a friend did this afternoon, about the fact that apparently Bloomberg couldn’t find anyone in the entire five boroughs who had any experience in education and who might be interested in the Chancellor’s job.

But I won’t talk about any of that.

I will only say that in public schools, fundraising has become a fact of life. Parents are expected to give–and give and give and give–because budgets are stretched so thin. My friend Brenna pointed out that on top of being asked to donate to a general fund, there are the slide rulers, the calculators, the twenty-five item “must have” list that teachers hand out on the first day of school (not to be confused with the teacher “wish lists” for the classrooms), the gym uniform fees, the field trip fees, the book fairs (a percentage of every book you buy goes to the school), the bake sales (which can account for thousands and thousands of dollars in any PTA budget)…By the end of the year, many families will have donated thousands and thousands of dollars, one way or another, and the public schools that serve these families are lucky to have them. Because of course, there are many more schools where all they have is what the Board of Ed gives them, and nothing else.

The tone of that email I got this morning, telling me that “failure is not an option,” seems like serious overkill–as if Gordon Gecko (in the first movie, not the second) was somehow a member of the PTA.

But then again, there aren’t many things more important than educating children.  Maybe failure really isn’t an option.

I don’t know the answer. I wish I believed that Cathie Black does.

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3 Responses to The Price of Public Education

  1. Dick November 15, 2010 at 11:07 am #

    When we see you, remind us to tell you about our brief but interesting friendship with Cathie Black.

  2. Tonya November 16, 2010 at 12:46 pm #

    I worked for the really wealthy folks whose kid went to a ritzy school. their fundraisers were INSANE! At one there was a week vacation at a posh hotel and ski lodge in Switzerland, another was a walk on part on Sex & The City!! Crazy!
    And, frankly, I don’t see how a school that costs 40K per year needs a fundraiser. Why don’t they have one and give the money to public schools?

  3. Tonya November 16, 2010 at 12:46 pm #

    I worked for the really wealthy folks whose kid went to a ritzy school. their fundraisers were INSANE! At one there was a week vacation at a posh hotel and ski lodge in Switzerland, another was a walk on part on Sex & The City!! It was so Crazy!
    And, frankly, I don’t see how a school that costs 40K per year needs a fundraiser. Why don’t they have one and give the money to public schools?

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