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Tighter school budgets mean parent groups are asked to fund more and more items that used to be paid for by the administration.

by Sharron Kahn Luttrell


Lauri Lewis thought she knew what to expect when she joined the PTO four years ago. She would help run bake sales, school fairs, and teacher appreciation days, right? Well, yes. But she would also raise money for hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of equipment and capital projects. That got her wondering—what is the PTO's role, anyway? To enrich her kids' educational experience, or to enrich her kids' school?

Increasingly, parent-teacher organizations are funding items that schools say they need but can't afford. Across the country, PTOs are picking up the tab for computers, library books, even instructor salaries and classroom aides. While most agree these items should be paid for with public funds, many PTOers say they're not going to hold their breath waiting for those funds to appear.

Lewis, whose fifth- and seventh-grade children are students in the Brazosport Independent School District in Texas, was stunned her first year on the PTO when the parent group funded a new phonics curriculum. "I was like, 'What does the school provide?' " she says.

Since then, Lewis has watched the district's PTOs pay for a new elementary school track, 20 computers with wireless Internet, a computer lab, an outdoor pavilion for physical education classes, maps, an atomic clock, and library books for the middle school.

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Earlier this school year, Lewis headed up the annual Rasco Middle School PTO fundraising drive, which brought in $50,000 through gift-wrap and candy sales. "It sounds absurd, but we almost had trouble spending the money. A teacher could have asked for almost anything," Lewis says. "The schools that my kids go to are better equipped because of the PTO. I think the school board knows the PTO will come through."

And therein lies a problem, according to National PTA President Shirley Igo. While it's understandable—indeed commendable—that parents want to provide big-ticket items for their children's school, it's unfair to do so, she says. Private funds tip the balance of equity in public schools, with students in wealthier communities likely to end up with more than their peers in less well-off districts. "When some schools are able to raise additional funds from outside sources, while other schools are not, we develop a multi-tiered education system that places many of our children at a great disadvantage," Igo explains. "No child's education should depend on where he lives, his socioeconomic condition, or the ability of his community to add to his school's resources."

Others disagree, arguing that providing the best resources for their children can't be a bad thing.

A Budget Band-Aid?

Private donations to public schools are not new phenomena, although lately, parent groups have edged into a more central funding role, largely because of budget cuts. Many states have adopted tax limitation measures, restricting the amount of money a community can raise for services like education. And with only 20 percent of American families having children in public school, support for increased education funding has fallen off, said S. Paul Reville, who is on the faculty of the Harvard School of Education and is co-director of Harvard's Pew Forum on Standards-Based Reform.

Yet, from the prairie town pioneers who pooled their money to hire a schoolteacher, to the gifts of water fountains and ornamental trees that senior classes buy their schools each year, beneficiaries of public education have felt compelled to give something back. Add to that impulse dwindling public education dollars and the specter of a beloved child doing without, and you get someone like Kevin D. Green Sr., who pounded the pavement in Jackson, Mississippi, to collect donations for the annual PTA raffle. Green, president of the Boyd Elementary School Parent Teacher Association, realized his third-grader would be on to middle school before Boyd got the "computer in every classroom" that the governor has vowed for the state's schools.

So, with the same spirit that drives him to purchase Kleenex, soap, and other essentials for his son's classroom, Green and the PTA set out to buy computers for the school. The raffle brought in $20,000—a high for the Boyd PTA—and 11 new computers are expected to arrive any day.

"The PTA has given us a boost in getting up to date," says Frederick Murray, principal of grades three through five in the 800-student Boyd school. Murray says the PTA's generosity has allowed him to use district funds to reduce class sizes by hiring more teachers.

The children at Boyd do not come from wealthy families; more than 95 percent are eligible for free or reduced lunch. The $20,000 was hard-earned, through the students' salesmanship and the community's support. But some worry that one-time or annual fundraisers like this are a Band-Aid that covers the need for long-term, strategic funding and could lull school boards into ignoring chronic budget shortfalls. As well-meaning and helpful as private donations are, there will never be enough to pay for everything, says Wendy D. Puriefoy, president of the Public Education Network (PEN), a national association of local education funds in Washington, DC. According to Harvard's Reville, if the nation's total charitable foundation dollars replaced public funding of education, America's schools could survive for two to three days before plunging into bankruptcy. "People are trying to solve a big public problem with private money, and it just doesn't work in the long run," says Puriefoy.

The community's enthusiasm for equipping schools should be redirected toward advocating for increased public funding, Puriefoy says. Not only do public dollars reflect the public's priorities, but they also ensure consistency that most PTOs can't, she explains. The Rasco Middle School PTO has no long-term strategy because the school serves only two grades. The entire PTO changes over every few years. "There's no long-range plan," Lewis says. "Every couple of years, a new group of parents shows up and says, 'OK. How can we spend this money?' "

Puriefoy's advice is, "As a PTO, ask yourself the larger question: 'What happens after my kids are gone?' If something is going to have an impact, it has to be structured, regular, systematic."

Parents as Philanthropists

The Gates Elementary School in Acton, Massachusetts, seems not to suffer from continuity issues. The school, which serves 508 students in grades K–6, has a PTO that has paid for a Spanish instructor for the last nine or 10 years. It also funds 39 hours per week of classroom assistants. Interim Principal Walter McGrail explains that the PTO has a sort of succession plan, where the co-chair serves with the chair for a time before taking over the helm. This ensures an uninterrupted link with the past. The PTO has avoided running afoul of the teachers' union by limiting its support to part-time, noncertified positions.

While the Gates PTO has apparently worked out a conflict-free way to fund personnel, there are districts that are so concerned with the potential for problems that they have clear rules about what sort of help they will accept from parents. The Newton, Massachusetts, public schools have an "equity cap," which limits the amount of money parent groups can donate for certain items. Technology was removed from the cap when budgets got tight, so last year the Mason Rice elementary school parent group launched a capital campaign after realizing that, of the city's 15 elementary schools, its was among the most poorly equipped. Through letters, information nights, and coffees, the PTO raised $70,000 to buy computers and audio-visual equipment. This year, some of the city's other PTOs tried to organize similar fundraisers, bringing inequity concerns back to the surface and sparking a movement to put technology back under the equity cap.

"We're at loggerheads," says Mason Rice PTO Co-Chair Kathy Berman. "But the point is good. I don't support PTOs taking this on." Berman says the citywide PTO council has been meeting to work out the issue, and she hopes its members can figure out a way to make sure every school is equipped at the same level.

When Paul Houston was superintendent of the Princeton, New Jersey, public schools, he had a policy limiting parent support to nonessential activities, such as enrichment. Still, Houston, now executive director of the National Association of School Administrators, says he's glad he wasn't on the receiving end of an offer that a California rock star once told him about. The man (whose name Houston, out of courtesy, won't reveal) was unhappy with what he felt was the unhealthy food his child's public school cafeteria served. The musician offered to hire a macrobiotic chef. When the superintendent told him that wouldn't be fair to the other schools in the district, he offered to give a benefit concert to pay for macrobiotic chefs for each of the schools.

"If I were the superintendent, I don't know what I would've done in that situation," Houston says, then adds that he probably would have encouraged the parent to lobby the school board to allocate more funds toward healthier school meals.

That's the advice Puriefoy has. And while parents like former Mason Rice PTO Co-Chair Bonnie Ciambotti agree that's the best route, they're acutely aware of the clock ticking on their children's public school years. By the time they work their requests up through the bureaucratic layers, chances are their kids will be on to another school. "Our computers were so old and slow. The teachers were so frustrated, they could barely even use them," Ciambotti says. "We knew if we waited for the school department to fund the computers, we just wouldn't get them."

Whether or not it's in society's best interest to have parents acting as private philanthropists, one thing's for certain: They're not going to stop anytime soon. Dire needs and enthusiastic parents make for a potent mixture.

"The issue has been around for a long time, and it ebbs and flows with the economy," Houston says. "I think this will be coming up more often now."

The PTO Today Take

It's an age-old question: Where should we draw the line between a school or district's financial responsibilities and the fundraising role of a parent group? Like the bumper sticker says, "It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber."

While we agree with that sentiment, the reality is that parent groups across the country are playing a key role in providing valuable extras for children—more than $2 billion worth of playgrounds and computers and field trips per year, at last count. That can't be a bad thing.

The most effective parent groups can aim for success in both areas. By reaching out and engaging your entire community in the education cause, you'll make strides toward increased district-level funding and equality, and—as a nice side benefit—your next fundraiser will be even more successful. It doesn't have to be an either-or proposition.

Why can't we have fully funded schools and enthusiastic parent groups providing even more? Now that's a goal to strive for.

The I's Have It

When S. Paul Reville was executive director of the Alliance for Education in Worcester, Massachusetts, he helped spearhead a $4.5 million tax override for the schools. Convincing taxpayers to support local education in a blue-collar city of 170,000 was the result of a long-term campaign of public engagement.

Reville says the PTO is a natural body to advocate for a higher level of school funding. He recommended parents embark on a basic "three I's" marketing strategy of gaining the community's interest, involvement, and investment in the schools.

Interest community members in the issues your school is facing by helping them make the connection between the community's vitality and the health of the schools. According to a recent survey by the Public Education Network and Education Week, most Americans agree that the nation's success depends on a well-educated citizenry.

Involve people in the schools with special programs and volunteer opportunities. Reville's organization invited local policy makers into the schools to be principal for a day. Other ideas include recruiting senior citizen volunteers and hosting community reading days, during which local dignitaries and others visit classrooms as guest readers.

When people feel a sense of ownership in the public schools, they'll be more likely to invest their time and tax dollars in education.

"It's a different way for the PTO to think of its mission," Reville says. "What you really should be about is getting critical people in your community interested in making a financial commitment."

Before embarking on the three I's, the PTO must educate itself about the issues its school faces.

Questions to ask are: What are the system's learning goals for the children? Are those goals being met? If not, how will they be met? Does the budget reflect these goals? What resources do we have?

"PTOs need to say, 'The work we have to do is to help citizens understand the relationship the schools have to the quality of life,' " says Wendy Puriefoy, president of the Public Education Network. "Generally people know more about buying a car than they do about the way their child's school system works."

Originally posted in 2002 and updated regularly.


# Leticia Marquez 2008-03-14 00:56
Exellent report, I will show it to our PTO members since a lot of people complaint
that the school should paid for things that PTO does.
I rate this article 5 stars
# Ellen Nelson 2008-06-02 23:21
I think that it is funny that PTA does not support parent groups in buying big ticket items for schools. I understand that they would like everything to be fair across the board but the problem with that is life is not fair. I do not come from a place where everyone is super wealthy but we work so hard to make money so that are children can have a better education. I wish that every school could have all the best stuff too but if I can get the children in my community the best then I am going to. I really enjoyed this article.
# Yvette Simoneaux 2008-06-17 06:59
I think it's funny that the PTO fails to see the big picture as more non-profit organazations such as PTO,churches,and groups that have the right intent at thesame time you take away financial responsibilities that each state should be obligated to. What more parents should be doing is carefully electing state leaders, not asking more from families who work and pay their taxes each year, every state is differant I've recognized that some states like New York see the big picture and make the smart investment in a child's learning enviroment. Lets go back to why we have support groups like pta,pto,booster clubs,etc I believe it was to enhance a childs education. Not to become financial support for your state.
# shanna 2008-08-14 23:29
Wow, very impressive and objective article. While I do see that parent organizations are becoming more and more of a crutch for the school's budget, I hate to admit that I am guilty of keeping up the status quo
# New PTO President 2008-08-30 19:54
What are the rules about carrying over funds from year to year? What do you do when you realize that you have quite a bit of cash in the bank that has built up over the years?
# Craig Bystrynski from PTO Today 2008-09-25 13:49
It's perfectly OK to carry a balance forward from year to year. For larger organizations, it's considered good business practice. How much is the right amount is up to your group to decide. One great way to put extra money to work is to build more broad-based involvement--free family nights, for example. Getting more parents connected to the school will pay off for your group and improve the overall educational environment. -- Craig
# New Treasurer 2008-10-21 15:42
This is my first year as treasurer and I have found that our PTO has been using money to buy gifts for staff and PTO members (i.e. birthdays, weddings, baby showers, retirement). I am personally against the idea and think that all money should go towards the benefit of the children. What is legal and ethical?
# Julie 2008-10-21 18:48
Superb article we are currently having issues about our PTO money.Money had already been promised for field trip buses but some of us believe it could be better spent on curriculum or what teachers may need to supplement their non-existant funds.We're thinking of having the teachers make a "wish list" of items for each level and work from that.
# wendy baustian 2008-10-22 12:23
Tennessee recently passed legislation that requires ALL school support organizations to become legal non-profits. We are required to post meeting announcements, keep minutes and have our financial records open to the Comptrollers office for inspection. We must have a charter filed with the state and ANY money spent, must be voted on by the organization members. While we do host a teacher appreciation day, individual gifts are not allowed. Money is spent for activities, events and materials for the children. While this new law is a lot of work, the accountability is there.
# Craig Bystrynski from PTO Today 2008-10-23 19:10
Hi New Treas -- On the issue of buying gifts, that's a gray area. The IRS requires that you spend your money in a way that supports your mission (to generalize, helping the school and the students). Buying small thank-you gifts for volunteers fits that mission, because it encourages parent involvement. Buying a new pair of shoes for the PTO president doesn't fit. It's up to your group to decide what limits you'd like to place on spending. I bet if you post that question on the message boards, you get lots of opinions and suggestions. -- Craig
# NEW VP 2008-11-05 16:55
I don't think personally that there is anything wrong with purchasing teacher appreciation gifts, retirement gifts, or bus driver appreciation gifts. I don't think this is a misuse of funds or illegal for a PTO to do. I think it creates a Family like atmosphere.
# Kathy A. 2009-04-21 18:05
Try living in my school district where, because of a recent lawsuit settlement, the School Board has basically cut the PTOs off from the District itself. In other words, because of this lawsuit, the PTOs can't send any papers home through the school with the children (e.g. fundraising items, announcements about enrichment activities, NOTHING), and the District can no longer include PTO information on its website. So as far as funding things the School District should be paying for? Nope. Not any more. The Distict, out of stubborness and fear, has cut its PTOs off at the knees, and we no longer feel obligated to pay for things like computers, etc. You could argue that the children are suffering here, and they are, and the fault lies with the District, not the PTOs.
# sherry locascio 2009-04-29 05:14
Do your rights change at a Catholic School? Does the principal decide everything? I am the PTA President and the principal decided that the volunteer lunch monitors is to be scheduled by her secretary and pulled it out of our hands. Can we do anything? Also, I have many other questions, is there specific articles about Catholic School PTA's?
# Cindy 2009-05-01 01:50
Good points Ellen Nelson! Life is not fair. How many of us researched the schools before we bought our homes? To cap what PTA/PTO's can raise or claim inequity is absurd. This socialist agenda is ramped within the PTA national and state leaders. It will only lead to the reduction of resources available to all kids. Speak up with your VOTE!
# D 2009-05-28 02:12
Our PTO has become a 503c organization to allow for tax deductible donations, I would suggest that others do the same if you have individuals who can give generously. In terms of equity between schools, I would suggest inter-school meetings or posting information/succusses in newsletters or online, so that other schools in the area can see what they can do. We've had several grants written by talented members of our PTO, which were then expanded to include all te schools in the district. Life isn't fair and sometimes you have to start at your own school, but I think it's important to share the successes and not be greedy, so that schools can stay in balance. People shouldn't have to judge the schools when they buy a house and kids shouldn't have to be bused across town for a good education.
# D 2009-05-28 14:52
What strikes me about these comments is that most of them are concerned with gifts for teachers. When did the focus get turned away from what is best for the students? Isn't that why we're here?The PTA/PTO's funds should only be used to enhance the education of the students, not to be a budget shortfall fix. More than likely, if you get to looking at the district's budget, you'll find there is more money than you think. Our school district cut off all "selling" fundraisers this year but was somehow able to find $15,000 for each elementary school to make up for it. We found that doing only cash for trash fundraisers(Boxtops, Nestle labels etc.) more than pays for the needs of our PTO.
# Kathryn 2009-07-07 18:56
Frankly, I'm disgusted by the sentiment that parents should have the right to better their own public school while ignoring the less well-off schools. I agree with Shirley Igo that no child's education should depend on where he lives. My family happens to live in the "best" school area in our city, but I believe that, as a parent, I have an obligation to ALL the children who live in this city, and I conduct myself and allocate my volunteer time accordingly.
# Tim Sullivan 2009-07-07 19:32
Hi Kathryn -

"Disgusted" just seems a bit strong to me on this issue. I see your point about good schools for all, but I simply can't paint as a bad or uncaring person the parent who digs deep from his or her own wallet or time to give to a school, any school.

Yes, I want all schools better. But that doesn't make the parent who gives to one school somehow bad. And certainly not disgusting. On the spectrum of good parents and bad parents, the parent who gives time and money to any school is way on the good side.

# Tiggertoy 2010-03-03 23:46
Well performing schools usually gets less funding from the school district, so there already is an inequity. If you have a low-performing school in middle class area, the parents with means will put their children in private schools and leave the public school system. So, even more money will end up in this inequity of the haves and haves not.

You never know what parents can do and sacrifice for if they can make a difference between a 1-30 class size versus a 1-25 class size for kindergarten.
# Michelle 2012-07-07 15:42
Our scholl principle asked our pto to fund these items below....Should the pto money pay for teachers back to school lunch party, on aug. 8th 2012? Should the pto pay for teachers spirit wear t-shirts, to be worn on Fridays each week, for 65 teachers? Should the parents be in charge of the parent drop off and pick up area and hand out tardy passes to those kids that come in late?
# JM 2012-11-03 02:36
This is my first time being part of the PTO and the first time that only parents are members, no teachers.
From what I have learned, the PTO raises funds to provide items that the kids need, books, supplies and also fun stuff like xmas gifts, carnival, etc. and it comes from money the parents donate. Recently, the principal requested funds for items that will only benefit the teachers within the school but outside the classroom. I did not provide specifics, but a general answer would be appreciated. Thanks.
# Craig Bystrynski 2012-11-03 15:29
JM -- It's quite common for PTOs to provide funds and resources to teachers. Some groups do it in the form of grants based on specific needs, while others provide a certain dollar amount to each classroom. In general, you could say that anything that helps teachers do their jobs better benefits students.

You have to make a decision based on your own group's resources about what you are comfortable funding. In general, I'd say take strong guidance from the principal, but it's perfectly OK to push back. You know better than he does how your resources match your needs and goals, and how much work is involved in any project.

It's also important to limit the amount of fundraising you do. Running too many fundraisers will result in strongly diminishing returns, give your group a negative reputation, and make it difficult to build parent involvement. (Not many people join a group that's primarily all about fundraising.)
# cel 2013-05-25 01:52
Just a quick question! Should a school PTO pay for a principal's dinner with his family, alcohol included, as an end of the year gathering? As well as paying for dinner, it never got brought up at any meeting or approved? What is the correct answer?
# Meghan 2013-08-29 06:32
While I agree that schools need to be funded more, I feel it's ridiculous to stop helping my child's school in order to make the government realize how badly schools need money. I have no desire to play a game of chicken with the government at the expense of my child's education. In a perfect world all the schools would be equal, but we don't live in a perfect world. I am not supposed to do something simply because it's not fair to another school? Are you kidding me? It's like deciding not to buy a new car because someone else can't afford it, even though you need one.
# cwp 2016-05-17 19:57
So, from the point of view of liberals, we shouldn't fund our own children's schools because other schools don't get funded equally. So, in their perfect world, all children should get crap education. But, the better off will then send their children to private schools or home school, etc. This will therefore destroy public education. There are schools, like our own, that have about 50% economically disadvantaged. They benefit from the other parents who give their blood, sweat and tears to the PTO. What would happen if the PTO could no longer fund enhancements? The parents who could do so, would leave. Either by going to other school in the district, private education or home schooling.

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