Tuesday, July 19, 2005

School fundraising creating two-tier education

VICTORIA - Most parents know that schools are becoming more and more dependent on their fund-raising abilities.
That dependence isn’t just an inconvenience. It threatens to undermine the basic principle of public education, which guarantees every child a more or less equal chance to learn.
A Canadian Teachers’ Federation study surveyed more than 3,000 schools and found parents - and teachers - raised an average $15,700 for their school during the last school year. If the results are representative, that suggests some $225 million in education spending in Canada each year dependent on parents’ ability to collect donations, or children’ willingness to sell chocolate almonds.
That raises lots of problems, but the biggest one is equity.
My children went to public schools in affluent sections of Victoria. There were stay-at-home parents with time to work on fund-raisers. People had the money to write a cheque, if that was needed. When it came time for a silent auction, a couple of lawyers would donate the time required to prepare wills, and people who were good customers of local restaurants could usually get gift certificates donated. Fund-raising was still work, but it paid off.
But parents in a struggling coastal community, or in Vancouver’s poorer neighbourhoods, have a harder time. They could put in much more effort, and raise a fraction of the money.
The gap is large, and growing. The survey found the smallest fund-raising effort at an elementary school was $180; the largest $240,000. The gulf was even wider for high schools. (All these figures are on top of school fees and sponsorship deals with pop companies or other marketers.)
The official line of governments - including our own - is that the fund-raising isn’t that significant, and only pays for non-essentials.
It’s a claim that’s wearing thin. Queen Mary Elementary School, in an affluent Vancouver community, is one of the fund-raising heavyweights. Parents are asked for a $100 donation to cover textbooks and other materials, and the annual gala silent auction, at a yacht club, has attracted Premier Gordon Campbell as a speaker.
It’s tough for many elementary school in Port Alice to do anywhere near that well.
The money matters. The government put out news release last year celebrating the fact that it had come up with an extra$10 million for text books across the province. It was a significant step towards improved learning, then education minister Tom Christensen said.
For Queen Mary, the news meant about $6,000 - less than one-fifth what the parents raised for books and other school needs.
The quality of children’s education is increasingly dependent on whether they’re in an affluent community.
There are short-term solutions. Parent advisory councils could agree to equalization within a district. Schools could keep two-thirds of the money they raise, for example, and contribute the rest to a fund shared among all schools on a per-student basis. Parents’ efforts would still produce direct benefits for their children, but the playing field would be a little more level.
The real solution is for governments to fund all schools to a level that parents consider adequate.
The money going to B.C. school districts increased 8.2 per cent during the Liberal’s first term. The consumer price index, a basic measure of cost pressures, rose 14.2 per cent.
The government notes, rightly, that the number of students dropped, so school districts have to expect less money. But a drop in enrolment doesn’t necessarily mean lower costs for the school - if there are 10 fewer children, maintenance costs, even the number of teachers, may stay the same.
School should be the great equalizer. Some children get a great start at home; some don’t. It’s hard to change that reality.
But in school, every child should have an equal chance to learn, to make the most of his or her potential - and to set the stage for future contributions to our economy, and society.
We’re letting that principle slip away.
Footnote: The increasing reliance on fund-raising almost inevitably puts schools outside the large urban centres at a disadvantage. Fund-raising is more difficult when school populations are spread out, and the communities may lack the kind of large businesses that can be hit up to help with campaigns, and the concentration of affluent families in one school area.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this Paul.

But I think you take the teeth out of your argument, when you say all children need an equal start so they can contribute first of all to the economy, then society.

If the purpose of educating children is so that they can produce/consume goods -- doesn't this make it easier for arts budgets, music, school libraries to be cut? How do these things produce graduates who are useful to the economy?

(Well-off parents who believe education produces decent citizens and richer lives for their children can come up with the money to fund these programs. The struggling? Tough luck -- their kids will only get the "basics").

One way to fight relentless cuts to public education is to eliminate the notion that its primary purpose is to produce graduates for the "economy." I know this may be difficult -- and its shows just how debased public discussion has become -- but it has to be done.

Mango said...

Learn about work from home

sarah-jackson17 said...

Some great ideas here, I know from personal experience that school fundraising can be incredibly hard, and even though socialised education is the only way to keep your population on top of the game, it lacks in certain areas such as healthy eating, social awareness and career advice.