The budgets of New York City public schools have been cut on average by 13.7 percent since 2007, resulting in substantial service reductions for students throughout the city. In many schools — mainly in affluent areas — parents and parent associations have assumed the obligation to finance activities and supplies that can no longer be supported by the school budget.
For the past two months, The New York Times has run a series of articles entitled “Paying for Public Schools,” many of which were based on an extensive survey of parents of public school students. The surveys revealed that many PTAs fundraise not only for calculators or trips, but also for afterschool programs, basic classroom supplies, and even toilet paper. For example, the PTA at P.S. 89 pays for music and art supplies, and provides the school’s teachers with $400 each for supplies. The PTA at P.S. 87 raised thousands of dollars for science kits because they concluded that the science program was no longer adequate. Parents in many schools are subsidizing art programs because budget cuts severely slashed the funding for these classes. Schools in less affluent areas are not able to provide this level of funding, but they do what they can: for example, the PTA in P.S. 305 in Brooklyn raises $5,000 yearly in order to help students with graduation ceremony costs and to pay for winter coats for homeless students.
Increasingly, PTAs are focusing their fundraising efforts on hiring instructional staff to replace key personnel whose positions were terminated. The New York Times identified forty public schools that hired pedagogical staff last year with PTA funding, although it suspects that more schools fall into this group. The number of teachers in the city has decreased from 79,300 to 73,982, due to five rounds of budget cuts since 2009. The Department of Education does not allow PTAs to pay for full-time classroom teachers, but it does permit private funds to support assistant or afterschool teachers, part-time librarians and art teachers. Some parents view this use of private funds as crucial for ameliorating the problems caused by increased class size. For example, P.S. 321 in Park Slope raised $176,665 for personnel in the 2010-2011 school year, one of the highest amounts collected by a PTA. The principal said over the previous four years the school had suffered budget cuts of $1.4 million.
Although the need to offset the state’s failure to provide students basic educational opportunities is understandable, the increasing reliance throughout the city on PTA fundraising raises serious ethical and legal issues. The public schools were created to provide a common educational experience for all students, rich and poor. Allowing some students to have access to more services because their parents can provide extra resources to the schools raises serious constitutional issues, especially if the funds are being used to offset the state’s failure to provide the opportunity for a sound basic education guaranteed by the New York State Constitution. This legal issue is discussed in more detail in a recent New York Times op-ed piece written by Michael A. Rebell, the executive director, and Jessica Wolff, the policy director, of the Campaign for Educational Equity.
School districts in other parts of the country are also wrestling with similar issues of private funding. For example, Portland, Oregon has attempted to reduce inequities in order to raise funds among different public schools by creating the Portland Public School Foundation. After the first $10,000 raised in private funds, 30 cents of every dollar that parents raise in a school is required to go to the citywide foundation and be reallocated to grants for other schools in need. In recent years, private funds and the money re-directed through the foundation is increasingly being used to support basic educational programs instead of enrichment activities. Michael Rebell commented, “This is progress toward equity, but the basic problem —- states not adequately funding basic educational needs —- still remains.”