The Great Divide: Fundraising is no solution to under-resourced classrooms

Recently, CBC analyzed two years worth of financial statements for seven schools in the Halifax area to determine the degree to which fundraising was playing a part in school finances. The results were instructive, pointing to a significant disparity in the amounts raised between schools.

Volunteers at one schoolin a catchment area with average household incomes over $130,000raised an annual average of $70,000, or $360 per student. Conversely, volunteers at another school (average incomes in catchment area about $55,000) raised an average of about $15,000 each year, or $82 per student.

Wealthy communities can and do raise more money, so that there is a difference isn’t surprising. However, the size of the disparity is eye-popping. According to research from some provinces, the gap appears to be growing, mirroring societal inequality.

People for Education found that in Ontario, the top 10% of fundraising elementary schools raised 37 times the amount raised by the bottom 10%—some raising as much as $123,000. Among secondary schools, the top 5% of schools raised as much as the bottom 81% combined. These inequities appear to be growing in the province, despite the introduction of provincial fundraising guidelines in 2012: for every $1 raised by the bottom 10% of elementary schools, the top 10% raised $49 (in 2008 the ratio was $1 to $25). There are similar stories from BC and Alberta.

Fundraising lets governments off the hooka slippery slope in an era of austerity budgetingby downloading the responsibility of well-funded, adequately-resourced schools onto parents and school communities (and let’s not forget teachers are also being enlisted). And it’s a difficult cycle to break, because it’s so deeply ingrained and because the need is so apparent. It’s also reinforced by the overwhelming concern that we need to give our kids a competitive edge from a very early age. But given the disparities, it’s time to reevaluate what behaviour our understandable parental concern is enabling from our elected representatives.

This is not about blaming parents, who do what they can—go door to door, bother friends and coworkers to buy wrapping paper or chocolate covered almonds, volunteer at pizza lunchbecause they want the best for their kids. But some parents have greater ability to do that in a way that results in more for their kids’ school. Yes, fundraising is ultimately voluntary, but let’s not pretend that pressure to participate does not exist, or that the need to self-disclose financial hardship is not deeply humiliating.

It’s not just about disposable income, it’s all those other resources that may be harder to quantify: stay-at-home parents, or parents who work more predictable hours, or those who may be professional accountants or fundraisers, or own businesses that can help out. It’s about access to social currency too.

What are the implications of private fundraising in public schools? Here’s a (partial) list:

  1. Fundraising is a symptom and an amplifier of a bigger issue: how inadequate public funding exacerbates inequalities between kids, schools, and communities. In some instances, it actually reverses the impact of public funding that is earmarked to try and address student need. In Ontario the “learning opportunities grant” (LOG) distributes about $179 per student to schools in needy areas, while fundraising brings in $548 million to boards, or an average of $280 per student, literally reversing the impact of the LOG.
  2. Addressing the reliance on fundraising requires revisiting funding formulas to ensure that we’re working with a funding model that is rooted in meeting needs of schools and students, and that educators and education workers are supported with the resources inside and outside the classrooms they need to do their jobs well.
  3. Some have suggested pooling fundraising resources to redistribute money to some high-need schools. Resource sharing is a great optionbut we already have a mechanism that is based on ability to pay, that doesn’t set up a situation where some parents may not want to support schools outside their communities or where their kids don’t go. It’s called progressive taxation. The issue is not about finding ways to make private fundraising fairerit’s about making sure schools don’t have to rely on it.
  4. Good fundraising campaigns work by establishing a personal connection. But social programs like schools aren’t just about your, or my, childthey’re about all kids. Kids you don’t know. Kids you may not have a good relationship with or any relationship with. They’re not something we voluntarily support because we have extra money or extra time to direct to a particular school, but because it’s a codified part of our social contract that recognizes all kids should have access to a high quality education as a public investment and a human right, not as a donation.  

If we want things like well-stocked libraries and well-resourced classrooms (and field trips and musical instruments and art supplies and team uniforms and sports equipment) for our kids, then we have to acknowledge that all kids deserve these things too. So let’s make sure we pay for them in the most efficient, effective, fairest way possible. And if it means revisiting the funding model to make sure it works, is transparent and is publicly accountable, that’s a conversation we should all get behind.


Erika Shaker is Senior Education Researcher at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Listen to her discuss fundraising in schools with CBC Radio’s Maritime Connection online here.

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