Why Shouldn’t New York’s Wealthiest P.T.A.s Share With Its Neediest Schools?

Why Shouldn’t New York’s Wealthiest P.T.A.s Share With Its Neediest Schools?

By The Editorial Board, NY Times

New York City’s public school system is already one of the most segregated and unequal in the country. Why then should its parent-teacher associations exacerbate inequality? New York’s P.T.A.s are doing exactly that, according to city data and reports from the city’s Independent Budget Office. Across the city, the disparities are stunning.

Take the P.T.A. at Public School 29, an elementary school in the Cobble Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn with a low percentage of pupils living in poverty. The P.T.A. reported it raised more than $1.7 million, or more than $1,800 per student, in the last school year. Compare that with P.S. 6X, West Farms, an elementary school in the Bronx with a high poverty rate among students, which reported raising just $5,793.82, or less than $11 per student.

The fund-raising data was released for the first time by the Department of Education Dec. 2 as required by a new city law, and compiled in a handy search tool by Chalkbeat. The data is incomplete, self-reported and hasn’t been evaluated by the city. But a recent report from the Independent Budget Office, a nonpartisan city agency, shows a similar pattern.

Of 132 schools reviewed by the budget office in the 2017-18 school year, the school with the lowest percentage of children living in poverty, 6 percent, received $437,000 from its P.T.A., while the school with the highest percentage of children living in poverty, 98 percent, received $2,500. All 16 schools that received $250,000 or more in P.T.A. grants in that school year enrolled 40 percent or fewer children living in poverty.

Across the city, millions of dollars raised by P.T.A.s are flowing into the schools with the least need. Those schools are using additional funding for things like hiring art and music teachers and teaching assistants, according to the budget office and city education officials. That alone is upsetting. Art and music classes shouldn’t be a luxury offered to a privileged few but should be standard in every school.

Of course, parents have long used P.T.A.s to support their children’s schools, and it’s hard to begrudge them for doing so. But there’s also nothing wrong with asking New Yorkers who have more to help others — especially when the most insidious disparities in New York schools run far deeper than P.T.A. funding.

The city’s schools are funded with a mix of city, state and federal dollars. New York is one of the dozens of districts in the country that distribute the funds through a formula meant to give additional funds to schools serving children who are living in poverty or who have special needs. But the state and city have never fully funded the high-need schools under the weighted system.

In 2006, the State Supreme Court ruled that New York State was allocating about $2 billion less to New York City schools than was needed to provide the “sound basic education” required by the state’s Constitution. Despite an increase in funding since then, the settlement, in a case brought by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, has never been fully funded. City officials and education experts say the state now owes the city more than $1.1 billion in this fiscal year alone.

The city allocated an additional $125 million to those high-poverty schools annually, beginning this year, but hundreds of the schools remain underfunded. At the same time, many city schools with wealthier students receive more than their share under the Fair Student Funding formula the city adopted in the 2007-8 school year, while nearly 300 high-poverty schools had shortfalls of more than $500,000 each, according to the budget office.

The mayor and the governor, the City Council and the Legislature could address these inequities if they had the courage to do so. But P.T.A. funding also provides an opportunity to do so in a smaller way. One idea is to take a portion of P.T.A. funding above a certain amount from each New York City school and direct it toward a common, citywide fund that helps high-need schools. Though that might sound radical, it’s already in action elsewhere.

In Portland, Ore., one-third of funds above $10,000 raised by parents in a P.T.A.-like system are distributed to high-need schools through a fair-funding formula. Over $1.2 million was distributed in the last school year, according to Jonathan García, the president of the Fund for Portland Public Schools, a nonprofit organization that now oversees the program. “People are bought in,” Mr. García said. “Nobody bats an eye.”

Things unfolded differently in California in recent years, where the sharing of P.T.A. funds between Malibu and more economically diverse Santa Monica helped fuel a kind of secession movement among Malibu parents. David Bloomfield, a professor of education law at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, said that in New York, a city with vast wealth but also grinding poverty, P.T.A.s could make a difference. “There should be a wealth tax,” he said of such a plan.

Some said sharing P.T.A. funds might be more appealing if parents knew exactly how the money was being spent, and to what school it was being given. “When people fund-raise, they want to know where that money goes. I think parents would be super willing to share if they knew it went directly to a school,” said Emily Hellstrom, a former P.T.A. president who leads the Students With Disabilities Committee at Community Education Council District 2, in Manhattan. Ms. Hellstrom said asking parents to give money to a general fund overseen by the Department of Education was unlikely to go over very well. “It’s a vast wasteland of bureaucracy,” she said.

In the 2013-14 school year, about 10 percent of the $425 million in total P.T.A. funds in the country was raised by just 50 P.T.A.s, according to a report from the Center for American Progress, a liberal research group. More than a third of those P.T.A.s are in New York City.

Scott Sargrad, the center’s vice president for education policy for kindergarten through 12th grade, said that P.T.A. funds amounting to more than several hundred dollars per student in a school with few students living in poverty can worsen disparities and pay for programs that should be funded by schools directly.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the State Legislature should get serious about living up to the state’s commitment to adequately fund New York City’s neediest schools. The city should take a far more active approach to racially integrating its schools, something research shows is among the best ways to address educational inequities.

And the city could also take a look at what Portland has done and consider pooling some of its P.T.A. funds. To make progress in the face of such inequality, everyone has a part to play.

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