The first week of school, the new and firm backpack is always stuffed with notes. Pickup times, orders for chocolate, 1% or whole milk, a list of teacher expectations. But I feel it in the air. It's about to happen....
The second week. There it is. The big sign on the big blue doors. "Wrapping paper fund drive begins September 15th!" The money drive begins. Each year I am ambivalent. Should I give or not? How much? How often?
I know that PTOs exist to help parents make schools better for their kids, but last year our PTO suggested that each family donate $100 to give our Newton, Massachusetts kids a great education. I was blown away. "I thought that's what my tax dollars were going for," I muttered to myself. "If a school needs that much extra, then it really isn't getting what it needs from the old U.S. of A.," I say to three mothers milling around after the morning drop-off. The raised eyebrows made me feel cheap and petty. I did the math. If, let's say, there are 300 families and each one gives $100, then the school would have $30,000. That's extra?
So I told a friend
"Most Americans really believe that they care about children's education," said Cathy, whose daughter is in a Brookline, Massachusetts elementary school. "But if you look at how money is doled out, what shape the schools are in, what scores kids are getting on standardized tests, and how few computers are really in the classroom, taxes do not cover the basics in our schools. Forget about art, music, and foreign language. It's pathetic."
This issue isn't unique to New England. A few years ago in New York, there was a big hubbub because parents from a wealthy community gave substantial sums of money to their school. Parents from a less wealthy district called foul, claiming that it's not democratic for one school to have more money than another. Coast to coast, fundraising to make schools better is no simple issue.
Fundraising: superficial or crucial?
"I think the PTO here is superfluous," said one parent from Concord, Massachusetts. "Meaning exactly what?" I ask. "Well, I realize that PTOs are set up to help schools, teachers, and kids, but the one here spends money on things I think are silly. They just purchased new curtains for some classrooms. Curtains! How about a poetry program? A little music? That's what gets cut."
She gives her money to the Concord Educational Fund. It's an offshoot of the PTA that provides "Enrichment Grants" for teachers. "Teachers write up imaginative programs for their classes that relate to diversity issues or the arts. These ideas can get funded. I'd just rather see my money go to that than to interior decoration."
But there's another side to fundraising. One teacher told me that in her town, there is a PTA Teacher's Fund. "Teachers always spend their own money on practical supplies, markers, special reading materials, even gaffer's tape. My classroom is held together by gaffer's tape. But the school won't or can't pay for those things. So the PTA parents, God bless 'em, give each teacher $100 a year to purchase small items for the classroom. You might say that $100 a year is small potatoes, but to us, it makes a huge difference."
Diane, a mother from Arlington, Massachusetts, spends a lot of time on her hands and knees, usually cutting out paper dolls or making playdough castles with her kids. But when she dropped to the floor at a school where she was volunteering, she got stuck. Literally. "The carpets were filthy. Not like they hadn't been vacuumed for a week or even a month...like for years. And you know kids. They eat in the classroom, too. The floors were just plain gross."
So, she looked into the problem
"According to their contract, the custodians didn't have to vacuum. The school said it was the teacher's job. Understandably, the teachers didn't do it. Anyway, I got an estimate of how much it would cost to clean the carpets, and as a PTO member, I asked that it be taken out of the PTO budget, which it was. There are clean carpets...for now."
"In general, I think there are a lot of very piecemeal, somewhat meaningless fundraisers," muses Diane. "But there are others that really are important. In Arlington, the PTO had dues. I think it was $5 in the past, and people who wanted to give more could do so." "It should come out of our taxes," I say. "Yes, taxes should cover these things, but they don't. It's our job as parents to just deal with it."
What's the answer?
To me there's a big difference between $100 and $5. If we really need to give large amounts to a school, then we need to take a second look at federal spending. But sometimes, a dime's worth of volunteering can mean a dollar's worth of making a difference.
Why it's important
When I was a child, my mother used to come to my school and read stories. I felt so important on the days she was there. Last year, I asked her why she did it. "I think we should all leave the world a better place than we found it. I think the same thing about schools."
She's right. Whether it's money or time we give, whether it's $5 or $100, whether it's through the PTO or on our own steam, what's important is that we leave our schools in better shape than when our kids entered them. Because it really does make a difference.