How Budget Cuts and PTA Fundraising Tilted Funding Toward Affluent Children at San Francisco Public Schools
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This article is part of a special report on education inequality in San Francisco published by the San Francisco Public Press. A version of this story ran in the winter 2014 print edition.
Evelyn Cheung is the principal of Junipero Serra Elementary School in Bernal Heights. Matthew Reedy is the principal of Grattan Elementary in the Haight. Both San Francisco public schools faced five straight years of districtwide budget cuts — which hit hardest in 2010 with a $113 million shortfall and last school year came to a more manageable $13 million.
But the belt tightening did not hurt the two schools equally. Cheung was forced to lay off staff and take other drastic steps, like freezing supply purchases for a year. By contrast, Reedy hired new staff and expanded his school’s academic programs, helping raise standardized test scores.
Why? The difference lay in the ability of their parent-teacher associations to raise money. The Grattan PTA has budgeted hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, amounting to almost $1,000 per pupil. At Junipero Serra, where most students come from poor and immigrant families, the PTA raises approximately $25 per pupil.
“Every principal knows which schools have it and which schools don’t,” Cheung said. “We know who are the haves and who are the have-nots. The system just isn’t equitable.”
In an era of shrinking public investment in schools, parents have struggled to hold the line one school at a time. Since the pre-recession year 2007, elementary school PTAs in San Francisco collectively managed to more than quadruple their spending on schools.
With this money, some schools have been able to pay teachers and staff, buy computers and school supplies, and underwrite class outings and enrichment activities. These expenses, previously covered by the taxpayers, are increasingly the responsibility of parents.
But school district finance data, PTA tax records and demographic profiles reveal an unintended byproduct of parents’ heroic efforts: The growing reliance on private dollars has widened inequities between the impoverished majority and the small number of schools where affluent parents cluster.
Unlike some California school districts, which centralize and redistribute funds raised by parents, San Francisco so far has permitted all money raised at a school to stay there. This gives some schools an enormous advantage. School district data show that in 2011 (the most recent year tax records were available), parents of children at just 10 elementary schools raised $2.77 million — more money than those at the other 61 combined.
By bringing in as much as $1,500 per student, the top fundraising schools appear to have been largely insulated from the effects of budgets cuts. Meanwhile, parents at high-poverty schools such as Junipero Serra are seeing shrinking resources for their children. This means laid-off staff, dilapidated libraries, outdated computers and a dearth of essential supplies like pencils and paper.
Rachel Norton, president of the San Francisco Board of Education, said she and her colleagues were aware of significant disparities in the fundraising capacities of PTAs in the district. But administrators do not track donations, nor do they attempt to interfere with school fundraising.
“I’d never ding parents for raising money to provide more services and extras for their schools, especially in a state like California that has chronically underfunded schools,” Norton said. “The more economically diverse students the schools attract, the better off the schools will be.”
But fewer and fewer schools in San Francisco are attracting economically diverse students. The number of children from poor families is rising across the district, and there are more schools with high concentrations of poverty than there were 10 years ago. Meanwhile, the number of mixed-income schools is shrinking.