The summer issue is here! Join us for our launch party on June 19 at Green Apple Books.

How Fundraising and Cuts Increase Inequities in S.F. Schools: Jeremy Adam Smith on KALW’s ‘Crosscurrents’

San Francisco Public Press
 — Mar 28 2014 - 3:46pm

Jeremy Adam Smith spoke with host Hana Baba on KALW’s “Crosscurrents” last week about the disparity that parent fundraising creates between elementary schools in San Francisco, which he covered at length in a recent investigation for the San Francisco Public Press.

“We need to understand that these inequities exist and widen the gap between an affluent minority and poor majority,” Smith said.

“Crosscurrents” invited Smith, the investigation’s lead reporter, to discuss his findings and what San Francisco could do to address the disparity in parent fundraising. The program also featured KALW reporters’ coverage of local parent teacher meetings about parent fundraising at Juniperro Serra and Alvarado elementary schools.

Smith shared an analysis of tax return data of parent fundraising organizations in San Francisco, which found that parent fundraising for public elementary schools has quadrupled since the first state cuts to San Francisco’s education budget that continued for five years during the recession.

Parent fundraising helped some schools with more affluent families, like Grattan elementary, from suffering the worst of state budget cuts, Smith said. Grattan elementary did not have to lay off a single staff member during the five years of budget cuts in the recession. Grattan’s parents raised enough money for the school’s general fund to not only stay any layoffs, but even expand school staff, while students’ standardized test scores improved over the same period, Smith said.

But while parent fundraising bolstered some schools, it provided limited assistance for less affluent schools. Parent fundraising at Junipero Serra, which has one of the lowest levels of fundraising in the district, had to focus on community building more than money, Smith said. This meant the school had to stop buying school supplies for an entire year, lay off all of its arts teachers, and let go of both the school nurse and social worker — all due to state budget cuts.

“Simply, it’s a matter of their families being very poor,” Smith said, adding that Junipero Serra is at “a clear-cut disadvantage in relation to Grattan.”

But does this mean Grattan has done anything wrong? Absolutely not, said Smith, who added that he agreed with former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich that there’s nothing wrong with parents fundraising for their child’s school, and that they should be thanked, not criticized.

“Grattan is a great school, and I hope their PTA does not stop fundraising,” he said.

Smith offered suggestions for what San Francisco could do to reverse inequities caused by parent fundraising, such as having affluent and poor schools collaborating to share funds raised, or redistributing a small part of every parent donation to needier schools.

“Now that San Francisco knows that we have these inequities that are caused by fundraising,” Smith said, “we have to grapple with it.”

California is now directing more education funds to San Franciscio, specifically targeting low-income and English learners as part of the new Local Control Funding Formula, which may reduce the pressure on parents to fundraise for their child's school, Smith said.

Listen to the full KALW “Crosscurrents” show.

For more stories on education inequities in San Francisco, see our special report: Public Schools, Private Money, from the winter 2014 print edition. Buy a copy through the website, or consider becoming a member and get every edition for the next year.