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Fund Raising vs. Funding

The first time I was involved in fundraising for a school, my son’s preschool was in unanticipated trouble. There was a large (five figure) hole in the budget, and we needed money fast. Until then, I’d grumbled about the little fundraisers, and bought my way out. There were the raffle tickets that I bought rather than trying to sell them, and the ad sales phone calls that I’d gotten out of by buying an ad for my own business.
But this was a crisis, so I volunteered to help. A mom at the school who was a marketing professional in her “real life” (as I thought of it then) took on that big hole and proceeded to energize the parent group to fill it. She pulled it off — we had a fabulously successful fundraiser, and everyone felt like we’d done a great thing.
And we had. But here’s the thing that occurred to me: The fundraiser took, as I remember, the combined efforts of professional women ranging from marketing to graphic design to occupational therapy. We all took time out of our lives to make the thing happen. But what about if we’d done something else? What if we all committed the same number of hours to practicing our professions, and then donated all the money we made to the preschool?
Certainly, there were benefits to doing it the way we did. The biggest benefit was that for the first time since I’d been there, we started to have a real community. Except for parents who had known each other previously, or whose kids had formed especially strong bonds at school, parents didn’t see each other much outside of school. I hadn’t realized what was missing till it was there; since then I’ve come to consider a strong parent community one of the most important aspects of a school.
Another benefit of the fundraiser was that all the work we did resulted in free advertising for the preschool. And it definitely made the less involved parents sit up and take notice: they had assumed that the money they were paying was enough to support the school. But it wasn’t. A further benefit was that as parents looked at the budget, they realized how low the teachers’ salaries were and they were more supportive of paying higher wages.
Both of my kids are out of preschool now, but the issues and questions remain as I learn more about how schools function. What is the role of fundraising in a school community? Should parents be asked to contribute more than just tuition? Or in the case of public schools, should parents have to contribute anything more than their appreciation?
It’s a hard question to answer. The private schools I’ve been involved with (one preschool and three elementary schools) usually seemed to need to put out immediate fires rather than plan for the future. My son’s present school is trying out a new fundraiser that is more in tune with the parent community, which hasn’t responded well to the now-traditional dinner/auction model. Whether funds raised pay for things the school needs or helps students who can’t afford the tuition, fundraising closes the gap between what the school raises through tuition and what it needs to operate.
In public schools, the fundraising question is much stickier. I am a staunch believer in public education, and I’m pleased that we have found a public program that works for my daughter. But if you believe that public education is an absolutely necessary piece of a free democracy (as I do), then how can you justify making parents work to keep the school going? Because let’s face it: presently California’s public schools are not receiving a basic level of funding. The list of things that are now considered “optional” in public education are truly not optional: physical education, music, art, and field trips, not to mention functioning bathrooms, safe buildings, modern playground equipment, counselors, librarians, and enough paper, pencils, glue, and other supplies for the schoolyear.
It’s very nice when a parent community can raise enough money to help a school, but if all schools are not given enough money even to pay for all the basic services, then schools with a wealthy parent community will end up better funded than schools without. It’s lovely that Palo Alto High got a great new playing field courtesy of a rich parent, but what about all the other public schools with poor sports facilities?
My daughter’s school had a faucet that was leaking, and no funds to fix it. I told the principal I would be happy to make phone calls to hardware stores; certainly someone would donate the parts we needed. But really, should I have to do that? Isn’t it a basic requirement that schools have functioning plumbing? It seems that if we are going to agree that we should have public education, we have to agree on what will be paid for — equally, at all schools. Maybe some sort of public education bill of rights is needed.
It’s a cliche but it’s true: kids are our future. And right now, we’re giving some of our kids more of a future than others.

Posted in Parenting.


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