Parents pass the hat to make up for school cuts

Rachael Bouma calculated the cost of keeping rambunctious kindergartners under control at her son's school at exactly $227.

That was the amount she and other parents in the Tacoma district figured every family with kids in Lowell Elementary's kindergarten classes would need to contribute to save the jobs of three teacher's aides. While some families gave more and some less, the parents ended up raising $16,000 in a few months, and all three classes got their aides.

"It really frees up the teacher to be able to work in small groups and work individually with students on academics," said Bouma, whose son, Henry, is in a class of 24.

As budget cuts hit school districts across the nation, moms and dads are digging into their own pockets or organizing fundraisers to buy school supplies, save programs, even preserve teachers' jobs.

"We used to raise money to buy art supplies for kids who couldn't afford to buy their own. Now we buy the art teacher," said Bill Williams, executive director of the Washington state PTA. "That's somewhat of an exaggeration, but not much of one."

The practice comes with some controversy.

Some fear it will only widen the gap between rich and poor school systems and set a dangerous precedent that will make it easier for politicians to shortchange public education. In New York City, parent groups ran afoul of the teachers union for using their own money to hire classroom aides.

"It is commendable that parents are so dedicated to quality education for every student that they raise money to pay for teachers and other necessary resources. Yet it is deplorable that any group has to raise money to fund basic resources we know students need to succeed," said Bill Raabe, director of collective bargaining for the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union.

The economic crisis has led states to slash money for public schools by an estimated $350 billion over the next two years, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The PTAs new role: FundraiserAs a result, PTAs — known more for funding field trips and teacher-appreciation gifts — have gotten more serious about fundraising. James Martinez, a spokesman for the national PTA, estimated the nation's 25,000 PTAs raised close to $1 billion this past school year.

"PTAs are just having to come up with new and innovative and creative ways to raise money, and they're doing it," Martinez said.

In Thousand Oaks, Calif., for example, the PTA is starting an electronics recycling program. Volunteers are going to collect old TVs, computer monitors and keyboards and sell them to a recycler. They hope the program will not only bring in a few thousand dollars a year, but also teach kids about recycling.

Raising $550,000On Washington state's San Juan Island, a wealthy enclave near Seattle, an all-out community effort this past school year to make up for a budget shortfall approaching $800,000 pulled in more than $550,000 in four months, said Deb Nolan, PTA president at San Juan High. The drive saved a $12,000 hands-on science program, preserved some teaching positions, and kept a program that helps struggling elementary students.

The national PTA does not encourage parents to raise money for teacher salaries, fearing that school systems will come to depend on such fundraising year after year. Instead, the group wants parents to get more involved in lobbying state lawmakers.

In New York City during the past school year, 18 of the city's 1,500 schools had nearly 200 teachers and aides who had been hired directly by parent groups, even though the school system banned such under-the-table hiring in the mid-1990s.

The teachers union filed a grievance after it discovered some of the hires were being paid less than union members. The district gave principals until the end of the school year to fix the problem.

Gap between rich and poor?Some fear that relying on parents' generosity could leave poor districts even further behind. These districts do not have the well-to-do residents, the big property tax bases or the successful local businesses that wealthier communities have.

"That makes these communities and the schools in them more fragile, and it hurts them most when programs are cut and teachers are laid off," said Daria Hall, director of K-12 policy for the Education Trust, a nonprofit organization.

Even in some upper-middle class areas, parents know they can't possibly make up for the money lost.

Justine Fischer, PTSA president at Thousand Oaks High School, said that when business was booming in her Los Angeles-area community, parents could raise as much as $12,000 a year to buy software for the library, pay for a drunken-driving awareness program and support other programs.

But with layoffs hitting the community's biggest employers, the PTSA has set a more modest goal for the coming school year of $3,000 in cash donations, Fischer said.