NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. One battle centered on the price of cupcakes at the PTA bake sale, a dollar, up from the traditional 50 cents at the annual event to benefit Public School 295 in Brooklyn. Older, poorer residents bristled; newer, more affluent arrivals rolled their eyes.
This is just one example of the conflicts that can arise as budgets shrink and schools turn to parent contributions to pay not just for pencils and textbooks but for after-school activities, even teachers salaries and capital improvements.
The arguments that arise include elitism and exclusion, where the money goes and fairness. Obviously, some schools can raise a lot more money than others. Parents, teachers, tell us what's happening at your school. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, David Savage recaps arguments on Arizona's controversial immigration law at the Supreme Court. But first, conflicts over public-school fundraising. We begin with Kyle Spencer, an education reporter who writes for The New York Times, and she's with us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us today.
KYLE SPENCER: Hi, it's nice to be here.
CONAN: And in your piece about the cupcake war, you noted it's a lot - it's about a lot more than cupcakes.
SPENCER: Yes, the piece I wrote about for The Times centered on a battle at a school in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, which - in an area where the median household income has nearly doubled within the last 10 years. So the face of the school that's in the neighborhood had changed a lot, too.
Newcomers, very well-meaning PTA members, came in and decided that they wanted to be more aggressive about fundraising at the school, and one of the things that they decided to do was to raise the price of cupcakes at the longstanding Friday cupcake sale.
And this was something that they expected to be lauded for, and by some they were. But old-timers felt that they had sort of nudged their way in and were being overly aggressive and I think to some extent taking over the school.
CONAN: So - and this is an aspect of gentrification that happens in a lot of neighborhoods.
SPENCER: Yeah, I think it does, and I think what's kind of interesting about it is at these schools where newcomers come in, they are going into schools that in some ways are being pioneers, they're being adventurous, and they're going in with these sort of well-meaning ideas that they're going to revamp and improve a school.
And - but the folks who are at the school don't always think that their school needed so much improving, and in some cases are not so excited about people coming in and launching very aggressive PTA campaigns.
CONAN: And not just cupcakes but battles over, well, a lot of different things.
SPENCER: Yes, a lot of different things. PS 295 was one of the schools that we talked about in the story, but we also mentioned a school in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, another - PS 11 is the name of that school. It's another school that has been changing rapidly. And there a lot of the controversy has centered in recent years over their gala event. Should their gala event be a casual affair, or should it be a very fancy wine and cheese event?
I mean, there were even battles at that school about whether they should serve wine or punch, and that became a huge fight, which I think we could all sort of assume was really not about wine or punch, it was really about like who's in charge, what's the style of the school now and, you know, how fancy are we going to become.
CONAN: And other things, what gets auctioned off on the Web, indeed do you use the Web at all.
SPENCER: Yeah, and that was, you know, I have to say as an outsider looking in, it was - it was almost kind of sad to watch this. You'd have some parents who would bring items from their basements at PS 11 and say: I would like to auction - I think you should auction off this vase or something that I found in my basement. And other parents would say: No, no, no, we're only auctioning off fancy items.
These are the newcomers. So this is an upscale auction. And that was, you know, like upsetting to those old-timers.
CONAN: So this is, in fact, resentments over the changing of the neighborhood as they manifest themselves in the school.
SPENCER: Yes, I think definitely. And I think the other thing is that a lot of folks who come into schools like these, sort of, and join these PTAs, they're very well-educated, they're very well-connected, and they have a certain sense of being on par with the principal, being there to help the change the school, feeling like the educators are their peers.
And that can be - they may be feeling like they're doing good, but that can be very off-putting to folks who don't necessarily have that relationship with educators, who find themselves deferring more to them.
CONAN: There is also, not just through the PTA but local educational foundations that are sometimes set up in various places to try to raise money - I should put it this way, on a more industrial scale.
SPENCER: Yes, there are, and that's happened around the country, been going on for a while now. Now, the biggest issue with this kind of fundraising is the fact that a lot of times the foundations are raising money for districts, individual districts that happen to be wealthy districts, or sometimes they are - in some cases, in New York City actually, raising money for - you know, there are organizations that raise money, foundations or organizations that have been started, nonprofits that raise money just for particular schools.
CONAN: We've got this interesting email from Zara(ph) in Seattle: Our PTO fully funds our librarian, helps fund a part-time art teacher and is able to pay two invaluable volunteer coordinators. We all have qualms about doing this, but the only other option is to let these people go because there's certainly no money coming from the district or the state.
Our state PTA is currently trying to pass a resolution advising individual PTAs to stop funding staff positions not only because it greatly exacerbates entrenched inequalities but because it lets the legislature off the hook for some very basic school funding. But so many PTAs see fundraising as their sole function. I very much doubt many schools will agree to do this. Frankly, I don't want to lose our librarian, art teacher and volunteer coordinators.
And that represents a sort of a fundamental change in the nature of the PTA, seen previously as sort of a lobbying group to get the state to increase money for schools, and now saying, all right, this is a supplement to state budgets.
SPENCER: Yeah, I mean, it's really been - in the last five years in New York City particularly, you've had PTAs that have stepped up in incredible ways. Originally, PTAs were paying for extras. You know, they'd pay for a little extra course. They wanted a dance class, they wanted a little yoga, and that all seemed like a really nice way to augment what was actually being paid for by the government.
What you're seeing now in some schools is PTAs - I mean, honestly I'm seeing schools where the PTA is paying - the principal, rather, with the principal's budget is paying - you know, using 97 percent, 98 percent of their principal's budget to pay for staffing teachers, and every single thing that the school needs is now paid for by the PTA.
Now, these PTA presidents and these active PTA members feel the way this woman feels, conflicted about this. They are not doing this sort of, you know, without a lot of guilt, to some extent, and some mixed feelings. But they feel like their hands are tied. They don't know what else to do.
And a lot of them have sort of gotten into the situation where they so aggressively campaigned the first couple years of budget cuts, now some of these schools after five years in New York City of budget cuts, they've lost, you know, $500,000, $600,000. It's been - it's overwhelming for them, and they kind of feel like now we can't stop, we can't stop.
CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. Our guest is Kyle Spencer, an education reporter who writes for The New York Times, 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Teachers, parents, what's happening at your school? We'll start with Tina - Gina(ph), rather, and she's on with us from Tampa, Florida.
CONAN: Hi, you're on the air, go ahead, please.
GINA: OK, thank you. It sounds like we're talking about quite a bit of the same situation. In my children's - I have two children who went to an elementary school, and it's thrived during say the 10 years that we were there, and the principal there created a 501(c)(3) in order to contain these funds that were raised through PTA; not only PTA, it wasn't exclusive to PTA, it was through auctions, golf tournaments, gala events, even the sale, various sale items.
And then a core - there was a small board of directors that was created with that, like three or four people, some outside community members, as well as staff members.
CONAN: And a 501(c)(3) is a nonprofit corporation and tax-free, as well. But Gina, I wonder, has there - has controversy arisen? Do people see this as an important function now?
GINA: Well, there is - I don't think there's any controversy if you mean through the school district, there's not any controversy. The parents, we did all recognize that it was a public school, and so we recognized during the years that there were only - I'm just going to pick a number, I'm going to say there were 75 percent of us that really carried the weight of the contributions.
And we recognized that, and we really just didn't speak up because we did know that it was a public school, and those who could not contribute as much, contributed a small amount, and that's just the way the world is, in our opinion. And it worked beautifully.
It was a thriving school. The staff members had - we know that the staff members were provided a summer trip. It wasn't elaborate, but it was out to a local beach hotel, and they talked about strategy for the year, upcoming year and just a variety of things, even from, you know, supplies in the classroom or field trips.
CONAN: And that - at this point is it replaceable? Do you expect that money ever to come from the state?
GINA: Oh, well, we recognize no. I'm calling from the state of Florida, and they tried that, you know, when - I don't mean tried it. We were sort of bamboozled, I would say, as citizens when they interacted the lottery, which said it would go all for education. But as we all know now, yes, the money goes straight to education, but all the previous monies that were allocated to education were...
CONAN: (Unintelligible), yeah.
GINA: ...removed and reallocated. So the lottery's not providing full additional funds.
CONAN: And Gina, thanks very much for the phone call. And Kyle Spencer, that speaks to this - you know, this is becoming permanent.
SPENCER: Yeah, I mean, this is a really - this is a much larger issue than just, you know, are you - how much money is your school raising? This is becoming, I think, a fundamental issue about what we think of public school education. And, you know, going back to the founding fathers and their idea of a public school education.
I mean, by about 1870, we had, in all states, public school education guaranteed to kids. And the idea was that the public education should service everybody equally. And, I mean, John Adams has this fabulous comment he made in 1789 saying the whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it.
So the concept when - you know, from the beginning of our nation was this idea that we were doing this together, we were in it together and that one should not be on the sidelines providing money for public education in one arena and not another.
That's changing, and we as a society need to ask ourselves whether we are OK with relieving the burden of the government on providing these services and individually filling in.
CONAN: Kyle Spencer, who writes for The New York Times. We're talking about the conflicts that can arise when schools turn to parental support. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. When it comes to their child's education, many parents refuse to take no for an answer. That's playing out across the country as schools cut budgets for supplies, some classes and activities, even salaries. If schools won't come up with the money, in many cases parents will through bake sales, auctions and aggressive fundraising.
It's a trend that raises difficult questions about fairness between richer and poorer schools and about how to spend that money. Parents, teachers, tell us what's happening at your school, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Our guest is Kyle Spencer, an education reporter who writes for the New York Times. We've posted a link to her piece "At the PTA: Clashes Over Cupcakes and Culture." That's at our website. Again, the address is npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And Kyle Spencer, just before the break, you were talking about that - the Founding Fathers, and the thrust for the past 50 years has been to even out the sources of funding for different school districts. This is the whole fight about you can't fund it through property taxes because that's inherently unfair. And this development seems to be reopening those inequities.
SPENCER: Yes definitely, and one of the things that you'll hear a lot from folks who are raising lots of money at their schools, schools in wealthier neighborhoods that have that ability to do that, is they'll bring up Title I funding. And they'll say, well, there is Title I funding out there, which most people know is, you know, part of the war on poverty, established, you know, during Lyndon Johnson's presidency.
And, you know, the thing about that is the Title I funding, which is given to schools with students who are below the poverty level and needier than other populations, is essentially there to kind of level the playing field. And so when you then have schools that are trying to level the playing field and then other schools are then raising more money, it's like it shifts the level again, and it becomes very hard for those other schools, you know, the inequality sort of increases.
So that is, you know, a big issue. However, I will say that there are folks that will, you know, and Michael Rebell is one of them. He has been an important - he is with the - he's the executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Columbia's Teacher's College. And he has, you know, taken this position of you can't really criticize parents for wanting to spend money on their kids' education, wanting to fund their PTAs.
And what we need to do is recognize that what these parents are doing is trying to provide what the government is supposed to provide, which is a quality education. So what we need to do is give that money to the poorer schools but not chastise these parents for doing it at their schools.
CONAN: Email from Valerie(ph) in Berkeley: I live in California. Our school budgets have been cut for the last five years. Our PTA went from raising $30,000 a year to over $100,000 last year but with nothing to show for it. We're just covering the cost of core programs now instead of adding any art of music. We pay for the PE teacher, the yard supervision, part of the ELD teachers, supporting the literacy program. Without our contributions, our school would be the barest-of-bones education. Every child with any need would fall through the cracks.
Susan Sweeney is the executive director of the California Consortium of Education Foundations, an organization that works with local community and education leaders to raise money for public schools and joins us now from our studio in Stanford, California. Thanks very much for being with us.
SUSAN SWEENEY: It's good to be here, Neal.
CONAN: And I guess your goal is to try to prevent the cupcake wars.
SWEENEY: Well, I think actually we're focusing on one aspect of education foundations, but I think a much more important aspect is their role as a local convener, as their ability to collaborate, to bring other groups to look at local issues surrounding that community's schools and their children.
CONAN: And are these local educational foundations based around one school or one district or even more wider scale than that?
SWEENEY: Well, there are 650 or more education foundations in California. You find them at the county level. You find some at the site level, but the majority are a district, and it's a partnership where foundations are now seen - first we thought they were going to be Band-Aids to kind of hold things together until it got better. But it isn't getting better.
And now we're seeing that education foundations are educational partners working with administrators and school boards to deal with local issues.
CONAN: These are going to be permanent institutions, you think.
SWEENEY: I think they are, and I think they can bring a different perspective because they are a nonprofit. They are made up of community members, as well as parents, and they give a broader perspective.
CONAN: Do they create inequities as well as addressing certain - you know, obviously funding problems at certain levels, but some districts are inevitably more prosperous than others.
SWEENEY: That is true. And I would say to you that foundations are able to seek funding in different places, and different kinds of communities look at different funding sources. But clearly we are working - the consortium is working to promote equitable funding and trying to make sure - we feel that an education foundation can benefit every child and every community.
CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the conversation. Let's go to Monica(ph), Monica with us from Alexander, Nebraska.
MONICA: No, Alexander, North Carolina.
CONAN: Oh, I'm sorry, I'm misreading things today. I apologize.
MONICA: That's OK, thank you for taking my call.
MONICA: I have a question for both ladies. It seems to me, and I wonder if you found this in your research, that there is a role - what is the role that you see that the funding of the administrators and the bureaucrats in the education, the people that are never in the classroom, plays in providing less funding for the classroom because that's the - the reason I'm asking this is because this has been my experience.
Everything that we've experienced has kind of fleshed out and validated what Charlotte Iserbyt says about the American education system, and the inequity here in this county is legion. I could go on for hours about that. So what role do you find that the administrators' salaries, which are really in our county very extravagant, play in this?
CONAN: Kyle Spencer?
SPENCER: Well, we did at the New York Times education site, at Schoolbook Site, we did a crowd-sourcing initiative, and we launched it with this story about the cupcake clashes in which we asked folks to weigh in and to tell us what they were spending on their kids' education, how did they feel about it. We had over 250 responses, and we're about to launch a whole - a series of blog posts and a couple stories in the paper that will be addressing this.
So I would say when we reached out to all these folks, and they came back to us and told us what they thought, nobody, and this is really interesting, not one person said I'm really upset because I think teachers are making too much money, or principals are making too much money, or I didn't hear that once. None of us did.
MONICA: I think people feel politically it's dangerous to, and that's why...
SPENCER: I don't know, these were parents. I mean, this was an open forum. I mean, some of them felt - listen, we had parents who said, you know, I'm really sick of my principal telling me to open my pocketbook and pay for things. I mean, they didn't - it wasn't as if they didn't have gripes, it's just that the one thing they gripe about in New York City, and I don't know if they do this in California or where else this happens, but they pay - some schools have, a lot of PTAs pay for assistant teachers, particularly in elementary school, lower grades.
And those folks are - come in, they're paid I believe hourly. They're kind of cheap labor. A lot of parents are conflicted about that, you know, should we really have these people in here in that manner?
MONICA: No, I can hear you, I just hope that you will dig a little deeper because what we found here, and there have been some federal audits that prove it, the administration's ways of handling money put teachers in classrooms in a bind in the long run, and that's the bottom line, and that's...
CONAN: Let me ask Susan Sweeney if she's got some thoughts on that.
SWEENEY: Well, I would say education foundations are in a unique position to kind of look at where the funds are going and to work collaboratively with the school board and the administration. And we see that the majority of foundations do grants to teachers that go right into the classroom. They do other things, as well, but there is clearly going right-into-the-classroom delivery to students.
MONICA: Well, I think it's because the government money is going to the administrators.
CONAN: To the teachers, as well, but thanks very much for the call, Monica, appreciate it.
MONICA: Thank you.
CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Nora(ph), and Nora's with us from Portland.
CONAN: Hi, you're on the air, Nora, go ahead, please.
CARA: Oh sorry, my name's Cara(ph).
CONAN: Oh, Cara, I've got to get new glasses. I apologize.
CARA: No worries. Well, I was just calling because this is so incredibly timely. My two daughters go to an art school here in Portland, and it's been an arts-focused program since 1989. We've gone through years of cuts, and just last week, just last Wednesday, they announced that two of the three arts teachers, and that's pretty much all that we had left that was extra other than classroom teachers, are being cut.
And now we're trying to work on a campaign to raise $214,000, which is kind of ridiculous. We have 39-and-a-half percent of our families are on free and reduced-price lunches, and 110 teachers are being cut across the district. And I just feel like parents are being called on again and again to try to make up these gaps.
I don't understand why there isn't more solid, stable funding for education. How is our economy going forward going to work if we're not putting money into educating our next generations? It's just, it's absurd. And I am troubled by the inequity of it. I don't think that we can raise that kind of money, though golly, there's so much energy going in to doing so.
But so far this year, we've raised approximately $70,000, which is a huge amount of money, especially given that we're serving working- and middle-class students, but - and families.
But, you know, how do you fill a $214,000 hole? And I don't think that it should be young - you know, families with young children trying to fill this. I mean, I just - I'm disgusted that, as a society, we're not making education more of a priority, and I don't know how and when that's going to change.
CONAN: Kyle Spencer, that's an argument - it sort of cuts both ways. Yes, isn't this why we pay taxes?
SPENCER: Yeah. I mean, I think in defending our legislators, which, in some cases, can be difficult - we're watching what's happening at these schools - they are feeling really strapped. I mean, they are having a hard time balancing their own budgets. Now, you know, education - you know, advocates of - school advocates - and I don't know if I mentioned, you know, PTA President Betsy Landers.
The National PTA president has said, you know, they're balancing the budget off the backs of these kids, and they need to be called on that. I think they're strapped too. So I don't know. It's a really tough situation. I think it's why everybody feels so - you know, particularly wealthier schools where they're raising money - so conflicted about it.
CARA: Well, I mean, we're funding two wars right now. I mean, it just seems like our priorities...
CONAN: It's down to one, Cara, but...
CARA: ...are just completely whack.
CONAN: Yeah. It's down to one. But I understand. And the other side of this - and thanks very much for the phone call. I understand your concern. But, Susan Sweeney, the other side of this is that parents are more and more engaged in their school if this is one of the things they are doing.
SWEENEY: This is true. And not only - we look at - with education foundations, it's an opportunity to engage community members, local businesses, service groups. It is - we are really - education foundations focus at the local level. They focus on their local schools and their community, and it's really a way to bring the whole community around some of the issues. It's not going to solve a lot - many of the problems, but it can make a difference. And that positive difference is very important, particularly in times like this.
CONAN: We're talking with Susan Sweeney, executive director of California Consortium of Education Foundations, with us from Stanford, and also Kyle Spencer, an education reporter who writes for The New York Times. She's with us from our bureau in New York. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.
Let's go next to Jane, and Jane is with us from Portland.
JANE GREENHALGH: Yes. Hi, Neal. This is Jane Greenhalgh.
CONAN: We know Jane. How are you, Jane?
GREENHALGH: Yes. I should say that I also work for National Public Radio. I moved to Portland 10 years ago from Washington, D.C., and every year since I've been here, the state of Oregon has cut the school budget. So, currently, my daughter's high school, I - our foundation is trying to raise enough money to buy back five teachers that have been cut.
But the money we raise, we have - we give a third of our money away to a general Portland pot, which gets redistributed to the poorest schools, so that at least we are contributing something to the schools that can't afford to raise money. And I used to feel very guilty about the whole fundraising issue, but the fact of the matter is we're raising money for basic teachers - English, Math, not extras. This is the core curriculum.
CONAN: And core curriculum, Kyle Spencer, this is more and more the function of parents and parent organizations.
SPENCER: Yeah, it is. And it's - you know, it really - I think one of the things that we're doing here is - you know, one of the things we need to think about is what is the definition of a quality education or a core education? And what we're finding with leaders in - across the country is kind of diminishing what that means.
What does quality education mean? And so as it gets - you know, well, it doesn't mean art teacher, it doesn't mean a science teacher, it doesn't mean gym. Most Americans, particularly ones who got a decent education, think that a good education includes art, includes music, includes science and gym.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
SPENCER: But I will say - you know, I want to shout out to our friends in Portland. Portland's - I don't know if our - if this most recent caller sounded right, that her - she is in that district, which gets money through the Portland school foundation, which is a wonderful model of revenue-sharing. And it's a pioneer, and it's one that folks around the country have begun to look at, to some extent, because there are some wealthy schools in that Portland school's foundation area, and there are some not so wealthy ones.
There's another school district - I don't know of anyone out there in Santa Monica-Malibu district - just moved towards a sharing scenario, too, because parents at wealthier schools finally said, you know, this isn't fair. We need to do some sharing here. And you have other examples of it in Arizona, in a district that - Surprise, El Mirage.
There are - schools have come together recently. Instead of PTA raising money for their gym, they rose - they raised $25,000 for gym for all the schools. They also raised money for schoolbooks for all fourth graders. Some other examples in Knox County, Tennessee. Instead of having individual schools doing this thing that we see around the country with PTAs kind of, like, scrapping together money for supplies, they have a teacher supply depot.
They work together, and they will go to businesses and will say, you know, they've discovered that businesses give away tons and tons of - reams of paper. They throw it out. They change their name, and suddenly they have to throw out all this paper. So they collect it at this depot and let any, you know, teacher who wants to come and get supplies.
So this idea that we might be starting to think about this as a whole effort, rather than just an individual effort at an individual school, I think, is something that, you know, merits some discussion and some thought.
CONAN: Jane, I can't tell you what a shock it is to hear your daughter's in high school.
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GREENHALGH: I know. I know. And it's a good high school. It's just that we feel like we're hanging on with our fingernails because we have to raise money in order to keep it a decent high school. Otherwise, the parents are just going to leave and go private. And then what happens to the public schools?
CONAN: And that's another question. Jane, thank you very much for your call and say hi to Todd. Thanks.
GREENHALGH: Thank you. Bye.
CONAN: All right. Bye-bye. And, Susan Sweeney, that is another question, that if public schools continue to cutback barebones, barebones, barebones, there aren't going to be any public schools. Pretty soon, people - the middle classes who are paying for all of this, they're going to go to private schools.
SWEENEY: And that's exactly the research that Carol Merz did at the University of Puget Sound. And she saw one of the benefits of having a public education foundation, is that it kept those people engaged and in their public schools, because they felt they had a say at the local level. But I do want to, kind of, react to something that was said just earlier. We...
CONAN: We've just got a few seconds left, quickly.
SWEENEY: Clearly, this trend of district-wide and the foundation working with the school administration and the school board to distribute funds across the broader area, we're seeing that in Santa Monica-Malibu. We're seeing it in a number of K-12 districts.
CONAN: And I'm afraid we're going to have to leave it there. Susan Sweeney, Kyle Spencer, thanks for your time. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.