- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 10, 2002

Little things count at the typical public school such things as the monthly newsletter that goes home in the backpack for parents to read, field trips to the Smithsonian Institution and additional supplies to make the teacher's job just a bit easier.

Most of these extras aren't afforded via the normal channels of state and county education funding. Instead, they're goods and services bought with money earned through the ubiquitous school fund-raiser.

Once a child enters public school, the requests to parents for fund-raising assistance come in hard and fast. Indeed, the concept of asking friends and neighbors to buy items they might not really want or need can seem quite unsavory to many families. But fund-raising volunteers and education advocates say most parents realize that cash-starved schools rely on good will in the form of dollars to boost school performance and campus enhancements.

"So far, it hasn't been too bad," says Sandy, a Bethesda mother of a kindergartner. She doesn't want her last name used. "In practically the first week, they said, 'Here's the Sally Foster [wrapping paper] stuff for you to sell.' You're expected to sell it, but I didn't feel a whole lot of pressure. I'm not comfortable knocking on doors. It's not my personality. I feel I don't want to bother anyone with it, but I don't mind asking relatives and I don't mind buying it myself."

Sandy says her son's school has played host to several other fund-raising programs in which she has been happier to participate. One drive connected the school to a bookstore chain and simply involved designating a portion of individual purchases to the school's coffers. Another ongoing effort links grocery store purchases to school proceeds.

At her son's school, "teachers have classroom wish lists, and you could purchase books for classes in lieu of a gift for the teacher," she says.

"I think these are a better way for parents to participate than the door-to-door thing, but, anyway, anything that's used to enhance my child's education is fine," Sandy says.

Lisa Lombardozzi, PTA president at Herndon Middle School, calls fund raising "a necessary evil."

She explains: "I think it's the way we've been accustomed to our children having access to more things, whether cultural diversity or better playgrounds or learning to use the computer. If you want your children to have those things, you'll have to do the fund raising."

National PTA President Shirley Igo says what her organization is seeing in schools as far as fund raising is a direct result of the real need schools have. "It's a multipronged problem," says Ms. Igo from her home in Plainview, Texas.

Although the National PTA, which is the largest volunteer child-advocacy organization in the United States, "discourages our parent groups from the fund-raising role," says Ms. Igo, PTAs often are called upon to finance programs and buy needed equipment that tight school budgets will not allow.

"Those who handle our public funds have not provided for public education, particularly the many new responsibilities that have been placed on schools, such as [teaching] varied populations, asking schools to be more accountable, enhanced technology and curriculum, smaller classrooms, and well-trained and effective faculty members," Ms. Igo says. "So schools are turning to the private sector parents, the corporate world and foundations to raise additional funding."

Digging deeper

Americans dig into their wallets each year to finance the education of their nation's children. Estimated expenditures for public elementary and secondary education for fiscal 2001 is $333.8 billion through taxes, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). School coffers are filled via a nearly equal combination of county/city and state dollars, with a sprinkling of federal funding and money from state retail-sales taxes.

The per-pupil expenditure for the 1998-99 school year, the last year for which final audited data are available, was $9,650 for D.C. residents, says NCES statistician Frank Johnson. Maryland spent $7,326 per pupil, and Virginia trailed with a per-pupil allotment of $6,350. These numbers do not account for school construction, equipment and debt financing.

No parent needs to sell wrapping paper or candy to buy new textbooks or to keep the lights on in the building, says Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the Virginia State Department of Education.

"But parents are naturally interested in the education of their children," he says. "One of the ways to be involved is with your child's school" and to pay for extras such as playground equipment, athletic equipment and special programs.

"But no parent is required to sell wrapping paper. I must confess there have been times when I've neglected to sell any, but this is certainly a way for parents to involve themselves in the school and in their children's education," Mr. Pyle says.

Ms. Lombardozzi became involved in the PTA when her first child, now a sophomore at Herndon High School, entered elementary school. Ms. Lombardozzi soon found herself elected PTA president and now, at the middle-school level, concedes that she has experienced more than a few years of fund raising.

At Herndon Middle School, where Ms. Lombardozzi has a seventh-grader and an eighth-grader, the PTA earns money via a membership drive at the beginning of the year and asks for cash donations, as well. The PTA also organizes a raffle in the spring. In addition, "boosters," parent groups that fall under the umbrella of the PTA, raise money for specific sports teams and academic programs.

Ms. Lombardozzi says parents usually react positively when asked to supply or "earn" cash for their child's school.

"Most are very eager to be supportive," she says. "Very few times will you run into someone who's not. Anyway, in elementary school, you have all sorts of things going on that the PTA runs. There's a bigger push to get the families out to the school than there is in the middle school. Also, the parents, when they first get their kids into elementary school, they are really gung-ho. By the time kids get to middle school, the parents are just burnt out and the kids don't want the parents around."

As the PTA vice president for fund raising for an Arlington County elementary school, Marjorie Varner strives to tap into the motivation of parents new to the public-school system.

"I don't meet too many people who wish their kids had fewer things at school," Ms. Varner says. "People coming into our school have a very wide range of incomes, and we'll try to do what's reasonable to make money, but it was a horrible year, with September 11. I hated asking people to spend money."

Under Ms. Varner's guidance, the school has earned about $8,000 so far this school year in fund raising. Sources have included wrapping-paper sales; superscrips, in which participating parents can buy store gift certificates from the school, spending face value; and a book fair.

The extra funds have:

•Paid for scholarships to enable needy children to attend after-school enrichment classes.

•Bought a shed for the extended-day playground.

•Financed entertainment, such as African storytellers, for the weekly multicultural assemblies.

•Bought tickets and transportation for extra field trips.

•Added to teacher supplies.

•Provided for homework tutoring for ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) students.

"Some things are behind the scenes things that make our school run smoother that people don't notice," Ms. Varner says. "Some things people notice, but they might think the school pays for it, meaning tax dollars, but they don't. The PTA does. The point is to make this an enriched environment, to make people feel like they belong to the school."

Ms. Varner says she believes that everyone benefits.

"Every dollar spent to help a kid succeed helps every kid in that school, so I encourage us to use the money that we raise to enrich the school experience for every kid, especially those who wouldn't have this stuff otherwise," she says.

Taking children to market

Alex Molnar agrees that the nation's schoolchildren deserve the best, but he takes issue with some of the roads to riches. A professor of education policy at Arizona State University, Mr. Molnar directs the Commercialism in Education Research Unit.

"There's a whole host of issues raised by programs, such as selling wrapping paper, about how we organize public education in this country and how we regard our children," Mr. Molnar says.

"It has really become an enormous issue because schools used to be considered protected spaces for children," he says, "but these days, either because of the thoughtless invitation of administration and teachers or because of external pressures of business leaders and politicians, schools are becoming increasingly porous and vulnerable to this sort of marketing madness."

Most evident, Mr. Molnar says, is the fact that the marketing firms are using children to make money for themselves.

"They get the time and energy of school staff, parents and children all of that at no cost to themselves," he says. "In some respects, it's quite an exploited relationship. They're using the school as a battering ram to get in the front door."

Mr. Molnar says the second problem is "the pressure being placed on children and their families to define themselves primarily as consumers" hawking products that are not necessarily in the best interests of the family. In other words, convincing family members and friends to buy items they wouldn't ordinarily seek an $8 roll of wrapping paper, for example, or a 10-pound box of oranges or a subscription to a magazine they aren't interested in reading.

"When is the last time you saw Girl Scouts selling cookies?" he asks. "It's all parents. There is tremendous pressure, so a child that doesn't do that risks a kind of social disapprobation. If a parent stands against that pressure, they are saying, 'You're just going to have to live with that pressure at school.' While that's OK for not doing drugs or smoking cigarettes, do we really want to add to that pressure? It's not right."

So, what's the answer to the call for fund raising?

"I think that stuff ought to be banned," Mr. Molnar says.

"If the wrapping paper sells for $10, just give the school $5," he says. "Eliminate the middle person. Why give something for something you don't want?"

Ms. Igo, the National PTA president, says the money should come from a much wealthier source: Uncle Sam.

"Our concern is that we believe public funds should fund public education," she says. "When you begin to rely on parent groups or foundations for specific schools, then we begin to get into a system of inequity. PTA believes that every child is entitled to a good education and it shouldn't be decided by where you live or whether individual parents can provide things we believe is a public responsibility. As we require more of schools, it's going to require more funding, and our schools simply don't have it."

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