Why suburban CA parents don’t want their “family donations” given to other schools

I had a conversation the other day about family contributions–those fundraising donations usually requested each year by the PTA/PTO/PFA and/or raised by events hosted by those organizations. I’m genuinely perplexed by how my view of the situation is so off kilter with what I’ve read lately.

There are many stories like this one about how wealthier suburban communities want to splinter off from their more diverse areas and form their own districts. Much of the problem is said to be about the family contribution issues. If you haven’t heard about it, read about the Santa Monica-Malibu secession feud. This is the charge: part of the reason parents from wealthier schools (in this case, Malibu) are revolting is because they don’t want their donation money put in a big district pot to be evenly dispersed among all schools in the district (that is, Santa Monica).

In California, schools with high-needs students, including poor, English language learners and others, are eligible for supplemental and concentration grant monies. The U.S. Department of Education also provides supplemental funding to schools with low-income and at-risk students. Schools that receive these funds are called Title I. Schools that don’t have a certain concentration of these students are not Title I and do not receive these extra monies.

I spent a year as a grant writer for a public school that had many needs, but wasn’t Title 1. The school could apply for some grants, but most funders were clear that they gave preference to Title 1 schools. I accept this. There are schools in my district that are Title I and I have no problem with those schools receiving extra funding or capturing the vast majority of grant money. But without extremely deep knowledge of school funding and equity issues, I’m left with this impression as a parent: The state and federal government, plus myriad funding organizations, have indicated that because my school can carry its own weight, we must.

Parents at our school are told there’s no funding for any number of things – art, music, physical education, field trips, assemblies, computers and more. If we don’t raise money, we have been told that our kids will simply go without. Is this acceptable?

Don’t give my fundraising dollars away until everyone donates

Roughly 30 to 40 percent of us parents don’t think so. Yes, you read that right. That is, 30 to 40 percent of parents living in this nice suburban community, which has a reputation for stellar schools, make the family contribution and contribute to other fundraising efforts (think bake sale, fun run, etc.). This brings us to a key element of the problem that I never see addressed. In schools that aren’t Title I and that have more affluent  parents, a shocking number of those parents don’t contribute anything, according to my experience and to the parents I contacted who have been responsible for fundraising in a variety of schools in suburban Southern California.

A Malibu parent told me that “somewhere around 30 to 40 percent” of families actually make their family contribution. A friend who was heavily involved in a PTO in Los Angeles said that one year the percentage of families that donated got to 40 percent because there was an all-out effort and major publicity about school cuts. “The principal was soooooo excited that year. He would have been on Cloud 9 if it ever reached 50 percent! And this was from a solid middle/upper-middle class population, lots of college-educated folks and professionals, with homes ranging from $750K and way beyond.”

The best I heard was from an Orange County parent. She told me that once their elementary school went to a flat-out ask of $150 per child per year and a pledge to request no more money from parents, the family contribution rate went over the 50 percent mark. But that community is one of the wealthiest in Orange County, with fewer than 2 percent of the population living below the federal poverty level. (Other schools I have close knowledge of have tried this approach and still hover around the 30 percent mark.)

Nobody I spoke with wants to take money away from low-income students. Nobody I spoke with thinks parents who are low income should contribute money they simply don’t have. But I also don’t know any parent who wants to continue donating – already knowing that the majority of families don’t pony up – and then have their donation funds collected by the district and distributed to schools their children don’t attend. I’m about as equity minded as one can get, but even I’d feel little incentive to donate under these circumstances.

We need a better solution. Let’s not demonize suburban parents who raise funds for their local schools. Instead, let’s do away with fundraising and get new ways to legally permit school fees. With this, every school could assess a per child fee for school admission and skip the family donation program. If families meet certain economic thresholds – like receiving free or reduced school lunches – they’ll also receive free or reduced school fees.

Once everyone who can chip in does, I’ll get behind redistribution. Until then, I guess I’ll be lumped in with the greedy Malibu-ites.

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Victoria Clayton

Victoria Clayton

Victoria loves research, reading, writing and talking to people. Her biggest asset as a writer is insatiable curiosity. She’s worked as a columnist covering parenting, health and education for MSNBC.com and many other publications. She’s currently an education contributor to TheAtlantic.com. Victoria’s essays have been published in The Midwest Review and Barrelhouse literary magazines. Her husband and she have two sons, ages 13 and 6. Victoria is a part-time college professor (after being a first-gen college student) and has been a parent volunteer at a traditional public elementary school in their far-flung suburb of Los Angeles as well as in a charter school devoted to whole child and social/emotional-centered education. Besides reading and writing, she's obsessed with yoga, meditation, making homemade Oreos (“Victoreos”) and Isaac, the family's 8-pound Chihuahua mix. She still believes, despite what some critics say, that education is the most powerful force we have against ignorance, violence and despair. Find her on Twitter @vicclay.

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