The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Parents raise massive amounts of money at some public schools. Should they share it?

(Illustration by Emiliano Ponzi)

On a frosty weekend afternoon in mid-December, Northwest Washington residents flocked to Alice Deal Middle School, where they shook the first snow of the season from fresh-cut balsam and Fraser firs, looking for just the right Christmas tree. As flurries fell and smoke curled above the fire pit, a team of volunteers in hats, parkas and snow-covered boots worked in shifts, accepting payment and carrying homebound trees in merry processions to waiting cars. The profit from each $30 to $130 tree would go to the school's parent-teacher organization, the Alice Deal Community Association (ADCA).

It was a cheerful, almost bucolic scene that masked the hard work, deep pockets and social advantages that went into creating it. Deal parent Jonathan McHugh, who has coordinated the event for the past four years, started preparing six weeks in advance: getting vendor quotes, working out a budget and paying about $17,000 for the trees, which were stored behind a fence outside the school, in view of a security camera. He also made signs, sent out emails and organized about 40 volunteers for the two-weekend sale.

Though it’s a lot of effort, McHugh says, the greens sale is “something that helps make up a healthy, vibrant school.” The popular event generates a $10,000 to $15,000 profit, which is only a fraction of the approximately $225,000 the organization predicts it will raise this school year through parent donations and other fundraising activities. The money pays for things like scholarships for eighth-graders going on international trips, classroom technology, teacher grants and training, parent workshops and the annual school musical.

The parent-teacher organizations (PTOs) at some other elementary schools in the city’s affluent Wards 3 and 4 generate even more money. During the 2016-17 school year, the Lafayette Elementary Home & School Association (HSA) raised about $270,000 to pay for teacher supplies, additions to its library collection, art programs, family fun nights, science events, and both its community service and mindfulness programs. Lafayette parents contribute about 2,000 hours to support Lafayette HSA efforts every school year. (Disclosure: My sons have attended or are attending three schools mentioned in this story: Deal, Lafayette and Wilson High.)

In contrast to this wealth of funding and involvement, the PTOs of some public schools in Washington have annual budgets that don’t exceed $100 — and some schools lack enough parent volunteers to even form an organization to raise money. These vast discrepancies in PTO fortunes, which are reflected nationwide, have drawn the attention of the Center for American Progress, a liberal D.C.-based think tank. In 2017, it released a report about parental contributions to school finances that noted that PTO revenue had reached more than $425 million in 2010 but was concentrated in affluent schools. This resulted in “considerable advantages for a small portion of already advantaged students,” the report said.

The imbalance bothers some parents at wealthier schools. A few years ago, then-ADCA board member Tabatha Thompson recalls, a PTO from another school asked for guidance on holding its own greens sale but couldn’t afford the thousands of dollars in upfront costs to buy the trees. That started a conversation, she says: “How can we figure out a way for a school like that, that doesn’t have seed money, to start generating it?” And the conversation spurred her to co-found the School to School Initiative — a parent-run program that asks well-funded D.C. public school PTOs to donate a percentage of their annual budgets to a grant program that supports PTOs in low-income schools.

Since its establishment in the fall of 2016, the initiative has forced some PTO boards and parents to face uncomfortable questions: Should a PTO’s earnings support only that school? Is a PTO allowed to disburse funds for reasons other than the support of its school? Does such a program constitute charity? Why do such vast disparities in books, school supplies and enrichment programs exist at all? What restrictions, if any, should be placed on a PTO’s fundraising and spending? So, perhaps it’s not surprising that getting PTOs to donate to the School to School Initiative has not been easy.

Diana Rojas, Thompson's partner in the School to School Initiative, had been disturbed by the disparity in school PTO fundraising since she was a board member of Lafayette's HSA between 2008 and 2010. She recalls noticing at the end of one school year that the organization had accumulated a significant surplus, even after covering expenses including technology, science enrichment classes, art and music programs, and athletic uniforms. (Apparently such surpluses are not unusual; the Lafayette HSA sent an email to parents in February stating that "due to legacy budget surpluses, the HSA entered this school year with a cash balance of $280,000.") She suggested sharing some of those resources with minimally funded PTOs in the city but says that didn't go over well. "I let the idea drop," she says. "I didn't have the courage or the sway" to move it forward. But she saw the same pattern as an ADCA board member at Deal in 2011-12: After vigorous fundraising throughout the school year and money spent on amenities and enrichments, that organization had a significant surplus as well. "Every dollar that we raised was blood, sweat and tears," she says, "and then we didn't use it all."

When Thompson and Rojas, who are neighbors, began talking about forming the School to School Initiative in early 2016, they turned to the D.C. Public Schools’ Office of Family and Public Engagement for advice. It suggested that they work with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee (WLC) for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, an organization that includes in its mission ensuring a quality education for every student. The WLC had just started an effort called the Parent Engagement Program to provide grants for enrichment opportunities, kick-start fundraising efforts and increase parental involvement at lower-income schools.

In fall 2016, Thompson and Rojas began asking thriving PTOs within DCPS to consider donating 1 to 2 percent of their budgets to the Parent Engagement Program, which also receives donations from other organizations, as well as law firms and corporations. They started with schools their children had attended or where they had personal connections — first approaching PTOs at Northwest schools Lafayette, Janney Elementary, Deal, Hardy Middle, Wilson High and School Without Walls. “It is important to have those personal introductions, because we’re asking people to look beyond their immediate benefit to what we can accomplish together as a community, and that requires trust,” Thompson said in an email. In fall 2017, they approached PTOs at other schools in Wards 3 and 4 and on Capitol Hill. To date, they have reached out to 12 schools.

By the end of 2017, PTOs at five schools — Deal, Wilson High, School Without Walls, Murch Elementary and Lafayette — had donated a total of $10,300 to the WLC’s Parent Engagement Program, making up more than a third of the approximately $25,000 the program had to work with that year. ADCA donated $1,500; Wilson’s Parent Teacher Student Organization donated $1,800. The HSAs for Lafayette and School Without Walls each donated $2,000. Murch donated $3,000. “I don’t want to say it’s an obligation, but I think it’s important to support and bridge the gaps of the economic disparities between schools in different wards,” says Maria Emanuel, a Wilson and Deal parent and frequent volunteer. “I think it’s great that Deal [parents] started this. I’d love to see it promoted more widely.”

Rojas and Thompson were disappointed that more schools haven’t joined the effort. “We clearly see how strong parent-teacher organizations across the district benefit all students and our wonderful city, in the long term,” Thompson said in an email. She added that she and Rojas are following up with some of the schools.

Deal was in from the beginning. In a spring 2017 email highlighting the ADCA's donation, which is how I learned about the effort, Deal's then-principal, James Albright, reminded parents that the school's participation in the International Baccalaureate program meant it was committed to IB principles like being a servant of the community. "We sometimes don't realize how much this amount can mean to another school for their program," he wrote. "This is a truly efficient way to share the support with a relatively small impact financially."

Some donating PTOs had to overcome initial hesitation, however. Walls’ HSA declined to participate at first because some parents had concerns. “There are schools really struggling in the district, and it became the sentiment of the board that we have a moral obligation to support them,” says Michael Cervino, who was Walls’ HSA treasurer at the time. The hesitation from Lafayette’s HSA was more procedural, according to co-president Chris Lisi: Members of its board were unsure how to process the spring 2017 request from the School to School Initiative, she says, and needed time to standardize practices and criteria for donating money to another nonprofit. The board later committed to donate. “We’re excited to hear more about the specific impact it’s having on kids across the city,” Lisi says. That impact, she adds, will help the HSA decide whether to continue donating.

Representatives from the parent-teacher groups at three Ward 3 elementary schools that as of press time had not donated to the initiative — Janney, Horace Mann and Key — declined to comment on the process or reasoning behind those decisions, and contacts listed for the PTO boards of Hardy and the three-school Capitol Hill Cluster did not respond to emails. The PTO representatives’ apparent reluctance to discuss the issue might reflect how delicate and complicated deciding to donate to another school can be. McHugh, a former president of the Parent Teacher Association at Janney, provided some insight about why a PTO might decline to donate. “From a PTA perspective, I’m not certain it’s something that you’re allowed to do,” he says. “The money given to the PTA was given for a specific purpose, and repurposing that is difficult, which is why I’d like to see DCPS come up with some ways of putting structures in place so the money would be spread transparently and with people’s knowledge.”

Some PTOs also may have declined to donate because they make their own contributions to lower-income schools. For instance, Janney, according to its website, supports its “sister school,” Smothers Elementary in Northeast Washington, by providing books for students. Laura Lawlor and Meghan Bracewell, co-presidents of the PTA at Mann, worked directly with the WLC during the summer of 2017 to share fundraising ideas and strategies that other schools might benefit from, they say. Mann has also helped other schools through its participation in the DC Collaborative, a program that promotes arts and humanities learning in D.C. schools, and has developed a close relationship with one Ward 7 elementary school, donating supplies, library books, coats and other materials. Some PTOs, including Lafayette’s HSA, have committees devoted to providing community service opportunities to students and families, some of which benefit low-income schools in the District.

Albright, who is now DCPS’s director for secondary programs, says he was “ashamed” that some PTOs have been resistant to donating to other schools. “If those schools keep on thinking of themselves as completely independent with no connection to the other schools in the system, they’re fools,” he says. “My theory was always that we rise and fall together. This is a single city.”

When D.C. PTOs donate to the School to School Initiative, the money goes directly to the WLC's Parent Engagement Program. Starting in 2016, the program has made 12 matching grants of $1,000 to PTOs at low-income schools, with another 12 in process. The money has funded academic enrichment programs for students, as well as community events like multicultural nights.

Kent Withycombe, the director of the WLC’s Public Education Project, thinks the grants are helping to shrink the achievement gap, a belief that is somewhat backed by DCPS statistics. One 2016 grant recipient, the PTA at Cleveland Elementary, a low-income school in Northwest, used a portion of its grant money to pay for a subscription to a popular online math program for each of its students. “At the start of the 2016 school year, 27 percent of students were on grade level with math,” says Withycombe. “At the end of the year, 72 percent were on grade level.” Students at another WLC grant recipient, Kimball Elementary in Southeast, advanced in reading after the Parent Teacher Student Association hosted a summer reading Olympics with books bought with WLC grant money, he says. (The principal at Kimball acknowledges that reading proficiency improved by 4 points between the 2015-16 and the 2016-17 school years but believes the summer reading program is just one of the factors.) The grant money also helped increase parent involvement at Orr Elementary in Southeast. The school’s PTO hosted two family fun nights and saw a significant increase in volunteer commitments, according to both Withycombe and DCPS.

“One could argue that there’s no academic benefit if an event is just fun and social,” Rojas says. “But when you get the parents into the school, they meet the teachers. Everyone feels warm and fuzzy. Maybe a parent meets a teacher and signs up to read. Now there’s a tangible benefit: The parent feels more involved in the school community and makes it a priority to help that community succeed.”

The grant program does seem to be helping fledgling PTOs, such as the one at Burroughs Elementary in Northeast, hone their fundraising skills. According to president Regina Coleman, the Burroughs PTO raised almost $8,000 through a fundraiser at a local Chipotle, bake sales, concessions sales and a read-a-thon. The money has been spent on things like a science enrichment program, materials for the science lab, a school subscription to an online reading program, and gardening supplies.

But, as parents from the lower-income schools point out, even applying for grants can be a hardship. While some schools in wealthy neighborhoods can afford to hire professional grant writers, the Burroughs PTO “didn’t have ... someone who knew how to write grants,” says Coleman. Some schools are also daunted by the requirement to raise matching funds to receive the grants. And even when a school receives a grant, there can be complications. Part of the success of Deal’s greens sale, for example, is due to the ease of communicating within a parent community that is almost entirely accessible by email. Contrast that with Bruce-Monroe Elementary, a bilingual school in Northwest, where some families lack computer access and some parents speak little or no English. To ensure enough participants for a coding event supported in part by a WLC grant last fall, organizers sent out five rounds of paper fliers in both English and Spanish, in addition to emails.

Some school districts across the nation have taken steps to combat the problem of inequity among public schools. In Oregon, Portland Public Schools redistributes a portion of the district's parent donations through grants to schools with the greatest need. Other systems have rules in place to ensure that no schools have more teachers or instructional materials than others. The public school system in Newton, Mass., prohibits PTO spending on hiring or training staff and buying textbooks, and strictly limits spending on technology. Closer to home, Montgomery County schools allow parent donations to be used to pay for school activities like field trips and enrichment programs, but not to hire staff.

The District, on the other hand, doesn’t impose specific rules on its parent organizations, according to Shanita Burney, chief of family and public engagement for DCPS. She says it’s a matter of principle. “Parent organizations are parent-run; they are separate and apart from DCPS,” she explains. Still, the system is aware of and trying to address unequal access to field trips and other opportunities, she says. And a program like the School to School Initiative ensures “that many more folks have a level of sensitivity to what the dynamics are across the city so we can address it much more comprehensively.”

Catherine Brown, author of the Center for American Progress study, believes reducing the inequity in schools should not be an act of charity but should be built into the way the school system budgets. “Parents think they are doing a good thing donating to their kids’ school PTA,” Brown says, “and we don’t disagree with that: They are doing a good thing. I just wish it was coupled with them calling city council ... to drive more of that money toward the poor schools.” In an email, Rojas rejected the idea of the School to School Initiative as charity, “because that hints at a power imbalance, so to speak. The boards receiving the funds are just as important to the health and continuing success of DCPS even if they are not powerhouse fundraisers.”

With a cellphone in the back pocket of her jeans and a toddler on her hip, Jael Anker-Lagos oversees preparations for Noche de Pelicula Familiar (Family Movie Night), at Bruce-Monroe, one of several such fundraisers that will each net about $500. Anker-Lagos, co-president of the school's Parents and Teachers United (PTU), has spent the day alongside several volunteers making and bagging individual portions of popcorn, ordering 16 pizzas, organizing the drinks, setting up tables and stacking paper plates. In the preceding weeks, the group bought a license to show the movie, made posters and stood outside on cold mornings to hand out fliers and tell parents about the event, just as they'd done for the coding event in October. Now it's 4 on a February afternoon and it's time to make the announcement to start the show.

Excited kids chatting in Spanish stream in from upstairs, from downstairs and from outside. They pile winter coats in corners, pull crumpled dollar bills out of their pockets for concessions and grab bags of palomitas (popcorn), heaped in white laundry baskets set up on folding tables. The lights go down, the screen (rolled onto the stage and framed by the historic auditorium’s red curtains) lights up.

The PTU’s ability to generate seed money for such events was developed, in part, because of its application for a $1,000 matching grant from the WLC. Anker-Lagos says that raising the matching funds was a challenge; the PTU was only two years old at the time and had nearly nothing in its bank account. Determined to grab the opportunity, the group sought fundraising strategies from other schools via the WLC. Then it recruited eager parent volunteers and put together a plan to power up its efforts, including hosting Sabores del Mundo (Flavors of the World), a potluck dinner where families brought traditional dishes to share. “Everyone ate for free, everyone was welcome,” Anker-Lagos says. A raffle at the dinner raised a good part of the $1,000 the PTU needed for the grant. “We learned to fundraise in order to get that grant, and it really was kind of a catalyst to our future.” Since winning the grant, the organization has raised about $15,000 more. In October, the PTU hosted a holiday photo event for families. According to Nidia Dence, a Bruce-Monroe parent and PTU co-secretary, some of the money has been used to help teachers with classroom supplies, pay for field trips and seed other fundraisers.

These efforts have strengthened the camaraderie among parents and teachers, says Bruce-Monroe parent Maybelline McCoy. "The joining of different ethnicities and socioeconomic classes and recognizing the tremendous strength that is here and the inclusion has been really powerful to watch," McCoy says, "especially as a middle-income Afro-Latina mother." Anker-Lagos agrees that the PTU's hard work does more than bring in money; it has helped create "a stronger community that can work together to solve whatever problems may arise or to just grow together and support each other." And that, says Tabatha Thompson, is really what the School to School Initiative is about. "I want the program to succeed," she says, "because everywhere across the city there are fantastic parents who want to be involved and want their school to succeed."

Kitson Jazynka is a Washington writer.

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