Public Schools and Fundraising

In a volunteer school meeting recently, talk turned to how to engage new, younger parents in fundraising at our elementary school. There was discussion about how younger families are more likely to have two working parents, how these parents don’t understand the needs at a school that appears to be well funded by a robust PTA, how they’re not in the classroom and don’t believe we need to shore up this broken system with our own dollars. Embedded in this discussion was the typical talk about the lack of commitment and entitlement of millennials, pitting “us” against “them” in the same way I’ve become accustomed to hearing anxiety slung between the stay at home and working moms.

We are indeed seeing a decrease in overall engagement in our PTA membership and a decline in school auction attendance. This comes at a time when our local journalists are illuminating the discrepancies between the fundraising abilities of our public schools, highlighting how neighborhoods with more wealth and opportunity can raise the necessary funds to fill the gap created by our state shortfall. And currently, in Seattle, the conversation is focused on our superintendent’s move to make systemic changes to the HCC program in order to create better opportunities for all students (a bit of history can be found here).

Two things come to mind. First, I am reminded of the words of warning from Dr. Michael Moody at the recent philanthropy summit I spoke at in Tacoma: next gen are completely turned off by the thermometer visual of raising funds. They want to see and understand the impact of their giving. They want to know how their giving is creating real, tangible change. I find the issue of PTA fundraising fascinating in this context. Because real, tangible change in our schools looks like systemic advocacy to provide an education that works for all of our children.

Which brings me to my second thought. Real, tangible change looks like doing anti-racist work and dismantling systems of oppression that support some and punish others. It is not raising money to help fund a counselor or provide additional tutors at our children’s school alone. While these are necessary for a complete education, providing them school by school is a symptom of the old, extractive system of giving and taking. And it is based in the racist and classist ways we have designed education in our country. Next generation parents know this. The challenge of raising money from them lies in this knowledge: motivate them to use their passion and resources to question, and then change, how the system works.

I go back to the fictional story of saving drowning babies; either pulling them one by one out of the river today, or going upstream to figure out why they’re falling in. We need both approaches, because our children are moving through this system right now, and need the resources to get a solid education. But if all we’re doing is pulling our individual children from the river, year over year, we’re not fixing the problem. And in this scenario, white babies are getting pulled out more often and more readily than black and brown babies. And when individual families don’t question this, and continue to throw money at their child’s school and pat themselves on the back for supporting public education, we’re never going to create an educational system that actually educates, that lifts up those most suffering in order that our world works for all of us.

I realize I’m opening a can of worms (and threading a fishing line and casting it out there, while still in the process of constructing my own tackle box of knowledge and resources). I don’t know the answer to this problem – I am a curious participant, trying to learn about the history and legacy of public education, advocating for my own children, while questioning why we engage with our schools the way we do, and how we might redesign it to work better.

The future of philanthropy shows up in these microcosms of giving and taking. It shows up in how each of us individually joins the conversation of how we serve the greater whole while simultaneously caring for the parts. I believe the answer lies in the feminist model of giving, and I’m puzzling over the implications of a fundraising method that values solidarity, reciprocity and agency. What does this look like on a neighborhood scale, at the political and personal intersection of public education? Because if our PTAs continue to focus on fundraising for our individual schools, and not center the work of developing anti-racist educational policies, we are going to continue to see a lack of engagement from next generation families.

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