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Originally published Wednesday, October 30, 2013 at 4:15 PM

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The inequity of school fundraising

Parents give generously to their child’s school but does that fundraising help lock in advantages for higher-income families? Columnist Jonathan Martin asks the question.

Times editorial columnist

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The moment the first bell of the school year rang, parents were hit up to give. Gone are the candy bar sales of old. Today, its shopping, with a special code that funnels a slice to your school of choice.

Or better yet, the direct “ask.”

Seattle Public Schools doesn’t keep good statistics on Parent Teacher Student Association fundraising, but it’s in the ballpark of $3.5 million to $4 million a year. Good for those schools.

But the giving also tickles the finely tuned social conscience of some parents, because we know the river of money disproportionately flows to schools in more affluent neighborhoods. It locks in advantages to kids lucky to be born to higher-earning parents.

On the ground, this means that affluent Seattle schools can raise six-figure sums and butter the money across arts, computers and after-school ballet — or even unicycle classes.

“And then in higher-poverty schools, it’s a struggle to raise a couple thousand dollars from parents,” sighed Seattle Superintendent José Banda.

I saw the inequity in action a few years ago, at a swanky elementary school auction where predominantly white, upper-middle class parents, lubricated by strong margaritas, bid $5,000 or more for a second-grade art project. After auctioning off table settings, table wine and desserts, the auctioneer then said, “And now it’s time to just give.” He was rewarded with more four-figure checks.

The question of financial equity is embedded in Seattle’s appalling achievement gap. In progressive, educated Seattle, black and Hispanic kids have graduation rates about 20 points below white or Asian-American kids.

Money alone won’t solve it, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. PTSAs historically have funded “enrichment” — education outside the basic curriculum. But the state’s failure to fully fund the basics has left PTSAs to help fund those too, hiring teachers or instructional assistants.

Despite boosting education funding in 2013-15, the Legislature has a long way to go. Full funding of the McCleary decision (the state Supreme Court ruling forcing Olympia to uphold its “paramount duty”) requires lawmakers to increase per-pupil funding 42 percent by 2018.

Until then, I suggested in a blog post last May that Seattle PTSAs should consider an equity-sharing pool. Kick in 5 or 10 percent of total fundraising to a common pot accessible to schools with limited fundraising capacity.

It stirred a predictable response. One commenter wrote, “If I ... can’t give money to my local school, then I’ll be damned if I give anything at all. Hear that sound? It’s my wallet snapping shut.”

That’s not the norm, said School Board candidate Suzanne Dale Estey, who likes the concept of an equity pool. She hears support in one-on-one meetings with parents and community leaders.

“This is a progressive, charitable city,” she said. “As long as a majority (of the money) goes to their kids’ school, I think people would be willing, even motivated, to do this.”

There is also a reasonable counterargument: Seattle schools already redistributes the wealth.

Using a “weighted” funding model that tilts toward schools with higher poverty, the district effectively transfers about $15 million out of baseline funding from the haves to the have-nots. And weighted funding is on top of federal Title I and state Learning Assistance Program dollars.

For example, West Seattle Elementary, where 88 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-priced lunches, gets $7,802 per student, all money (including PTSA) included. View Ridge Elementary, with a free-reduced lunch eligibility of 4.6 percent, gets $6,036.

That data is difficult to find on the district’s website, and is poorly explained. Katherine Schomer, president of the Seattle Council PTSA, said that helps perpetuate a misperception that schools like Madison Park’s McGilvra Elementary, where she was fundraising chair, are awash in money.

“The PTAs combined don’t even come close to what’s taken away” in weighted funding, she said. “It’s not that inequitable.”

True, but PTSA-raised dollars are free of strings attached by the feds, state or district. They’re the duct tape of bucks, good for anything.

If I were a school board member, I’d propose an all-PTSA fundraiser — such as a benefit concert or districtwide talent show — with profits feeding an equity-sharing fund. It would be a step toward closing the achievement gap, without taking from the haves who must fundraise to compensate for the weighted formula.

This election season the $15-an-hour minimum-wage debates in SeaTac and in the Seattle mayor’s race have pushed issues of income inequity to the fore. It’s time to inject school-funding inequity into the conversation.

Jonathan Martin's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is

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