Community Voices: How we can use PTA fundraising more equitably in Minneapolis Public Schools

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Last November, the ninth annual autumn fundraiser for Burroughs Community School in southwest Minneapolis, organized by the school’s Parent Teacher Association and held at Mill City Nights in downtown Minneapolis, netted the school $73,000 in one night. Guests paid $35 to $40 admission and bid on such prizes as opera tickets and a Florida timeshare stay.

Across town in Northeast, Sheridan School’s annual art crawl fundraiser last year netted $314. Their Parent Teacher Organization’s balance for last year was around $3,500. Meanwhile, Nellie Stone Johnson Community School on the Northside currently has no PTA.

It’s an increasingly common phenomenon in Minneapolis Public Schools and in other public school districts across the country: affluent parents at some schools raise tens of thousands of dollars to supplement their children’s schools’ budgets, while other schools – where parents work multiple jobs, face language barriers, lack the childcare to attend meetings or volunteer, and/or lack the resources to attend pricey events  – struggle to even form a PTA.

Everyone agrees that parent involvement is a wonderful thing, and should be fostered. Unfortunately, wildly disparate PTA fundraising capabilities fuel and exacerbate inequity in public education. According to a recent report from the Center for American Progress, cited in an April 8 New York Times article, PTAs nationwide raise some $425 million per year – and schools serving just one-tenth of 1 percent of U.S. students capture 10 percent of that sum.

PTA fundraisers often pay for the kind of programming, equipment, and “enrichment” – field trips, new technology, exposure to music and the arts – that decades ago were offered in all public schools as a matter of course. That some MPS students have access to these things and others do not, depending on their parents’ incomes, personal networks, spare time and bandwidth, should trouble us all.

The NY Times article focused on one novel solution to this issue: The Santa Monica-Malibu District pools PTA donations and distributes them equally to schools across the district. That policy has enabled one school, half of whose students qualify for free or reduced price lunch, to fund art instruction, a choral program, a science lab and a telescope.

A handful of other districts, including Portland and Palo Alto, have enacted similar policies. To many in these districts – parents in needier schools, as well as some better-off parents doing more of the fundraising – it’s a fairer, if imperfect, response to inadequate school funding. To others, it’s patently unfair.

Right now, some parents at Kenwood Community School, a K-5 in southwest Minneapolis with an impressively active and industrious PTA, are seeking to change a longstanding MPS policy about how fundraising dollars can be used. Currently, gifts, bequests, grants and donations are not permitted to fund staff positions in a bargaining unit. A group of parents recently requested to change that and use PTA funds to offset the elimination of staff.

They’re understandably upset that budget cuts – brought on by a host of factors, not least underfunding at the state Legislature – have necessitated cutting certain staff and led to larger class sizes. Other schools, some argue, have been spared such cuts. Those schools are higher-needs schools, and the guiding principle here, one that’s easy to support in theory but harder to swallow if it’s your kid’s school facing cuts, is that the most money follows the students with the greatest need.

Changing the policy to allow PTA fundraising dollars to fund staff positions would only widen the gulf between schools in Minneapolis – as would using PTA money for other ostensible purposes when the true intent is to free up funds for hiring. At best, it’s a Band-Aid solution to the real problems: increasing costs and underinvestment in public education. It’s wrong that some MPS schools are facing significant reductions, but is this the road we really want to go down? There are already powerful forces at work trying to privatize public schools. Using PTA money for funding teacher positions, whether directly or indirectly, would certainly hasten that transformation.

I believe that the majority of us in Minneapolis care about all of our kids. And I’d argue that our district as a whole would be better off moving in the direction that Portland, Palo Alto and Santa Monica have. Of course there’s a range of possibilities between the status quo and pooling 100 percent of all gifts and donations; maybe earmarking a percentage for needier schools would make sense. Or, perhaps, pairing better-off schools that have active PTAs with schools that need help fundraising.

At a minimum, it’s a discussion worth having, one that’s long overdue.

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