Educators committed to equity must confront the difficult reality of school fundraising: it provides some kids access to opportunities and resources that other children don’t have.
“To properly fund a classroom to learn the way that I think kids need to learn, there’s no way that money exists.” Although not everyone agrees, this is what a teacher recently said to me during an interview about school fundraising. At her school, parent fundraising pays for laptop computers that support independent research and science workshops that enable kids to learn about concepts through direct experience rather than reading about them in textbooks. While good for her students, this teacher recognizes that not every student is so fortunate. Indeed, some Canadian public schools raise hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, while others raise nothing at all. Educators committed to equity must confront the difficult reality of school fundraising: it provides some kids access to opportunities and resources that other children don’t have. Is this fair in public education systems?
School fundraising refers to the multitude of ways individual schools bring in money from private sources, including parents, not-for-profit organizations, businesses, alumni, foundations, and universities and colleges. Schools and parents often turn to fundraising to top up perceived government funding shortfalls so they can provide students with a wider range of opportunities than school budgets can buy. Some provinces (e.g. Ontario, New Brunswick and the Yukon) have policies that attempt to limit what fundraised dollars can buy. These policies specify that fundraised dollars should not be used to purchase materials necessary to meet curriculum and graduation requirements. Enhancements to required educational programs, however, are permitted.
Of course, something one person might consider a classroom enhancement another might see as essential for learning. Like the teacher quoted above, many parents, teachers, and others believe schools are underfunded and worry that students will be unable to compete for jobs and secure the lives they desire upon graduation. Parents want to help their children be successful, and the pressure to do so has increased in contemporary society. Indeed, doing everything they can for their children is for many parents simply what good parents do.
Fundraising efforts pay off big time for some schools. A handful of schools in Toronto, Ontario, raised over $300 per student last year – more than 30 times what some other schools raised. Fundraised dollars purchase everything from school supplies, books, and musical instruments to technology, playground equipment, drama productions, athletic programs, retrofitted libraries, guest speakers, school trips, and more. Differences in amounts raised by schools may exist because schools or school/parent councils decide not to fundraise, but often they are due to families’ ability – or inability – to pay. It is the drastic differences in amounts raised that concern opponents of school fundraising and call districts’ and schools’ commitments to equity into question. Why should children from poorer families and neighbourhoods get fewer opportunities and more limited resources than children from more affluent families in public school systems?
It’s at this point in discussions about fundraising that someone will usually point out that schools in poorer communities or with large numbers of low-income students receive extra funding from their boards and government, qualify for more grants, or attract more donations than schools in more affluent communities. While this may sometimes be true, these additional funds often do not compensate for amounts raised by schools or school councils for a number of reasons. First, top-up funds from governments can be, and in some boards are, used to address provincial funding shortfalls for mandatory services as well as programs enjoyed by all students. Conversely, many grants awarded to schools by private and not-for-profit organizations dictate or limit how the money can be spent.
Furthermore, schools in poorer communities may need to spend their additional funds on items that other schools can rely on families to provide, including food and health services. Funds raised by schools or school councils, on the other hand, can usually be spent on whatever enhancements to the school’s program that council members and/or the principal deem fit, such as tablets, Chromebooks, or interactive whiteboards. Also, principals can spend more of their school’s discretionary budget on learning materials if there are fundraised dollars to pay for nice-to-haves (or for some parents, must-haves) like band instruments and new playground equipment.
Supporters of school fundraising point out that many of the opportunities and resources acquired with fundraised dollars are enjoyed by all children in the school, not only those whose families contributed money or other resources. This may be true within schools, but differences in opportunities offered to children between schools remain. Supporters also highlight fundraising’s potential to engage families in their children’s schools, but research from the University of Wisconsin1 shows it can sometimes have the opposite effect. Parents who don’t have the time, skills, or other resources to contribute to fundraising may become disengaged if they feel what they can offer, such as volunteering occasionally on class trips, is not equally valued by the school. There are also questions about which parents, if any, should be involved in decisions about how fundraised dollars are spent and how to ensure fundraised dollars are spent equitably within a school. Furthermore, students and their families who can’t afford to pay for trips, pizza lunches, extra-curricular activities, or student activity fees may feel stigmatized if they have to ask the school to cover these expenses. Some kids won’t bother and will simply miss out.
What is the solution?
So how might educators, principals, elected officials or parents reconcile their commitment to equity in public education with others’ – and perhaps their own – desire for more funds? Some schools and school councils donate a portion of the money they raise to another school or host fundraisers specifically to raise money for another school. Another idea is for boards to redistribute some or all fundraised dollars to schools with the greatest needs for additional funding. This is the approach adopted by the Portland Public School Board: one third of funds raised by parents in schools that raise more than $10,000 annually goes to a central equity fund for redistribution within the board. Trustees in the Toronto District School Board previously considered this option but decided against it, citing their belief that parents would raise less overall if such a plan was adopted. Even if it had introduced such a policy, it would not have addressed discrepancies between boards; a 2016 Toronto Star investigation found that average per-student amounts raised through fundraising by public boards in the Greater Toronto Area varied from a low of $118.10 to a high of $357.80.
Banning school fundraising is the only real solution to the problem of fundraising and fairness, since it is the only option that addresses the pressure on parents to do whatever it takes to ensure their kids’ success. A ban would enable parents and school councils to spend more time on priorities other than fundraising, relieve administrators of pressure to support a practice they may believe to be problematic, and engage parents who cannot afford or do not wish to participate in fundraising. Parents and educators might instead use time and energy they once spent on fundraising to lobby the government to adequately fund all public schools. As long as governments and educational leaders continue to allow (and in some cases even encourage) school staff and parents to raise and spend money in ways that benefit the children in their schools, our commitment to ensuring every child has the opportunity to succeed in Canadian public schools will continue to ring hollow.
First published in Education Canada, September 2018
1 Linn Posey-Maddox, “Professionalizing the PTO: Race, class, and shifting norms of parental engagement in a city public school,” American Journal of Education 119, no. 2 (2013): 235–60.