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Parents versus the budget

Forget about chanting, "The people united ..." These four parent groups are fighting to save education funding using snow, social media, and serious lobbying.

Orion Alternative School, Redwood City, Calif.

By Valle Dwight

As school districts across the country are forced to slash budgets and fire teachers, parents are responding in different ways to the barrage of bad news. Not surprisingly, protests have been the norm.

California’s “day of action” erupted in protests statewide, resulting in more than 100 arrests and a freeway closure in Oakland. In Olympia, Wash., parents marched on the capitol carrying a coffin that said “RIP education.” In New York, where schools are looking at a 5% cut, thousands of parents, students, and staff rallied at City Hall, calling for the state to increase spending for public schools.

But parents in some districts are taking a different approach, attempting not to lend their voices to the hue and cry but to contribute new solutions. Some are leveraging social media to get organized, some are pushing for policy changes, but all are proving that parents really can be a force for change.

Public school tuition: $375 a year

In Cupertino, Calif., parents and school staff have teamed up to raise part of the schools’ projected $7.3 million deficit themselves. Called Their Future Is Now, the coalition has set a goal of raising $3 million to save 115 teachers.

The group “steps in where state funding leaves off to keep our schools academically sound and nationally competitive,” according to its website. The idea is powerful in its simplicity: If every family in the district chips in $375, the group will meet its goal. (Of course, this kind of undertaking works best in affluent communities with relatively small shortfalls.) Volunteers are also soliciting local businesses and philanthropists to add to their fundraising totals.

The district is looking at long-term solutions, so the fundraising effort is designed to be a one-time thing, says the site. But if the campaign succeeds, it will offer a model for other parent groups to skip marching in the streets and effect change with their checkbooks.

Take it to the top

In Northampton, Mass., school budgets have been cut every year for the past decade, leaving the district struggling to keep art and music programs, even transportation. Tired of fighting for their piece of the pie, a group of parents decided to take their complaints to the top. They formed a coalition (originally called Northampton Education Action Team and now Yes Northampton) to research state budget issues, campaign locally to raise taxes, and advocate for more money from the legislature.

Last year the group ran a successful campaign in Northampton to override the state’s tax-limiting statute, thereby netting $2 million for the schools. And though the local initiative was successful, the parents quickly realized the problem wasn’t just in their city — and it wasn’t just with education funding — so they’re branching out. Yes Northampton is now focused on developing statewide coalitions to tackle funding problems at the source: the legislature.

“We can’t do this town by town,” says cofounder Jane Fleishman. The group is working to team up with others across the state to lobby the governor for increased funding for fire departments, police, schools, and all other public services. How it will handle the current budget crisis remains to be seen: Once again, Northampton is facing another large deficit, and schools are expected to suffer for it.

More than a pretty Facebook

Parents in Richmond, Va., have turned to social media to galvanize support for their schools, which are facing a statewide cut of more than $1 billion. The Facebook group Metro Richmond Parents Against Cuts in School Funding has become a focal point for those fighting the cutbacks. The group uses the site to organize rallies, make calls to legislators, and share news from the trenches. “A woman told me that her son … will be in a class of 35 students,” says one post, referring to the increased class sizes that are being threatened.

With more than 700 fans, the page has become a clearinghouse for information on what’s happening in other school districts, with parents and organizers posting relevant news stories from around the country. “Glad to find this group!” writes one parent. “What else to do before it’s too late and the school budgets get gutted?”

This kind of online activism may be the wave of the future, as busy parents can connect without having to hire sitters or ditch homework duty.

Subversive schussing

In the tiny town of Carbondale, Colo., teachers and staff from a K-8 charter school hit the slopes to raise awareness of looming budget cuts in their district. At a relay race on Sunlight Mountain Resort, the Carbondale Community School fielded a team to ski down the mountain continuously from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. The staff and teachers used the race to draw attention to the cutbacks, which threaten the school’s physical education and art programs. Although “skiing for schools” isn’t a practical gimmick for all districts, the group showed how to create a unique event to drum up publicity for its cause.

Faced with ever-shrinking budgets, school districts nationwide are being forced to take drastic action — including school closings, widespread layoffs, increased class sizes, shorter school years, furloughs, and program cuts. As that reality looms closer, more parents may find themselves moved to get involved in any way possible to save their schools. Will parent groups gain enough steam to combat the massive shortfalls schools are facing? Well, if we’ve learned anything from groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, it’s that when you mess with their kids, parent power has no limits.

Valle Dwight is a reporter, writer, and mother of two school-aged boys. She has written for many magazines, including FamilyFun, Wondertime, and Working Mother.

Comments from readers

"I live in ca. My daughter is in a great public school. Why? Because the parents and teachers work together to make sure the kids are getting the best possible education. The parents are involved and it shows. I don't think tea hers are over paid. They are responsible for our children's future. They should be paid well. Yes things need improvement ... But don't complain get involved and make it better. It is amazing how much a small group of parents can make a difference ... Imagine what would happen if a large number of parents got involved ? We do need more tax dollas to go to education .... You can say that ca has high taxes but if you incorporate you pay almost nothing in taxes here. I know many people who have done this ... Individuals who are hiding behind false corps need to be accountable and pay for their use of the commons like everyone else. "
"For the person that wrote about charter schools having a higher education at a lower price, the money for those charter schools come from the school districts the students live in. These districts are paying the charter schools for those students attendance. Yes there are many Charter Schools that do a great job with students, however that is a main reason why school districts are losing money."
"Parents need to look around and understand the reason for budget cuts. In many districts, 85% of the school budget goes to salaries and benefits for teachers and administrators. This is money that does nothing to enhance their children's education. Parents should be angry that teachers and administrators refuse to take smaller raises or pay more for their health care. In times of an economic downturn, teachers would rather see job cuts, than take smaller raises or increase the amount they pay for health care. Why should taxpayers shoulder this expensive burden while they see the quality of education deteriorating? Something is wrong with this picture. A note to parents: More money will never improve the quality of education. How can charters and parochial schools continue to offer higher quality education at a much lower price?"
"Some great ideas. I hope the parents are successful. Something has to be done to preserve quality education in the public schools."
"I'm not sure if this has really caught on yet but I believe schools will be doing less, more focused fundraising efforts in the near future. After all, it's more important to get the complete support of students, parents and the community on a major, highly-profitable fundraiser than it is to get very little support on a lot of small ones."
"I'd like to know what other PTAs are doing to raise funds. I'm part of a PTA for a public elementary school in Denver that has several fundraising programs and events: Simply Giving (just donating), wine tasting/silent auction, concerts, and Halloween carnivals. Like other PTAs, we have to raise more and more every year. What do other PTAs do?"
"Watch carefully what happens in your state. In Washington (with no income tax), 25% of families put their children in private schools as they have the means to do so. The national average is 10%. This imbalance makes it difficult to right the ship and ever get enough support for public schools. It's a shame. Children are our future... and they will one day manage our retirement funds. Don't we want them well-educated for that?"
"Focus on getting the collective bargaining agreements by the Teachers Unions out of the school and see how much money will be saved. The majority of public schools have become corrupt bastions of liberal thought. Charter schools do a much better job with the public money they are given, because they run their schools like a business and they use their money to educate children...what a novel thought."
"God was taken out of our schools and out of our courts, I am a simple high school graduate, my husband and I provide the needs of our family and very seldom the wants, our son has Asperger Syndrome, which is an autism spectrum disorder, in our county, a few years back a $2 million dollar Board of Education was built, including a Superintentent private suite, heated door knobs, and a marble staircase. It was an eye opener for me, my thoughts were of the torn and shared textbooks, rationed printer paper, and downsizing of teachers and parapros. What a materialistic world we live in, how does a fancy Board of Education help in the overcrowded classrooms? I have no answer, I'm just a high school graduate, I haven't been to college, nor do I have a degree in anything, but you want to know what I know, I know heated door knobs doesn't educate our children. I know the fanciest BOA in the world is not going to provide supplies for our schools, I know that teachers will never teach c! hildren on that marble staircase, all these materialistic things have done nothing for our children, nothing productive anyway,alot of debt yes, even my simple educated mind can figure that out. Common sense should be taught in college, because the window I'm looking through isn't making these decision makers look very educated to me.I don't look to far into the future, it scares me to much, if we don't reprioritize soon, not only will education fall apart, our children are the ones who will be left with sewing kits trying to stitch all back together! scary thought huh! Now let tell you how I feel about special education, I would have liked to be a fly on the wall when this no child left behind crap was thought up,classrooms should come standard with revolving doors, I am a substitute teacher and some of the special ed students are pulled out4 or 5 times aday. Not only do teachers have to teach but now they have to remember what these children did learn or didn't learn in ! their classrooms, keep up with what time they are pulled out a! nd what time they come back,what they need to catch up on, and by the way teachers have to stop teaching to get these students settled and on task with the rest of the class again. I think the legislators who came up with this plan should walk a day in the teachers shoes, then they should a day in students shoes, and WHO ASKED THESE CHILDREN IF THEY WOULD LIKE TO BE SINGLED OUT IN THE REGULAR CLASSROOM BY REGULAR STUDENTS?! did they think that the others students would not notice that they have their own parapro to help them, or how about this, part of autism is over stimulation and under stimulation, can you guess what they feel being pulled all day and sitting in a classroom with 20 or so other children, are they over stimulated or under stimulated? From experience with my own child, he gets teased, and the regular ed students are disturbed by him because he makes noises and hums, these are things he can not control, these are his coping mechanisms, some act out, some get! angry and frustrated, some shutdown, but did anyone ask our children where they would feel safe and comfortable, NO! legislators say they need the influence of the regular ed students, how can the regular ed students influence these children, when they themselves are frustrated because the teacher has to stop and redirect these students. Wouldn't our special ed children feel less stress in a smaller classroom with other children like them? I think they would feel more at ease and feel less stress to be like everybody else. I say bring back EIP CLASSROOMS!"
"GREAT article, thank you. It's this kind of creativity and hopefulness that makes America great -- and what is needed at the moment (and probably even more in the years to come now that the stimulus bux are history.)"
"Our district's schools are among the top in the state, but only because of the extreme contributions from parents in the form of financing and time. Our foundation raises close to $2 million each year for 9 schools, in addition to another $1 million+ through PTA fundraisers and 30,000 volunteer hours at each school. Without these contributions, our kids would be like many others - without art, music, computers, qualified physical education instructors, textbooks, library books, science equipment, and even paper and pencils. This is not an exaggeration! Administrators are not the problem (our district office is one of the leanest), it's simply expensive to educate and nurture so many children. Even with all of this, we are facing cuts to teachers and large class sizes next year. Parents cannot continue to bridge the widening budget gap year after year, and teachers cannot work for any less than they already do. If we as citizens value an educated population for the future of our nation (please say that we do!), we need to INVEST in public schools. It's an investment that will pay dividends in unlimited ways. Legislators and taxpayers need to make education a priority."
"Instead of lobbying for more and more money every year, parents should be looking at budgets and asking why there is so much money wasted by schools. Parents need to look at the whole picture and ask if all the money spent is actually going to make education better for the children. Parents need to ask why taxpayers continue to fund such generous benefits for teachers. Early retirement, generous pensions, and unbelievable health benefits are awarded to public sector employees, but never to the private sector. Why? They are impossibly expensive and unable to be sustained any longer. If parents want to continue the wasting of taxpayer money, then they should do their own fundraising and leave the rest of the taxpayers alone. "
"CA is a basket case. We tried the Cupertino strategy in our school; it failed. Parents already feel (rightly) that they are paying high property taxes (on newly purchased homes). Old geezers who live in neighborhoods with good schools (and hence an increase in their home values) don't want to pay any more -- so forget parcel taxes. The problem out here in CA is that the school 'districts' are either too small (1-4 schools) or too big (think LA). If there were more moderate sized schools districts (Maryland has a good model) the system could be managed better. As it stands, it's a complete mess. But there is no mechanism to change things. So, if you have ever thought of moving to CA with kids, forget about it. Wait until you retire and buy a small condo; enjoy the weather."
"If the government spends less money on the prisoners and wars, our schools will get more money and our children will be smarter, at least smart enough not to do something dangerous like crimes and wars. "
"A public funded education system is hardly ever successful. Reason being that such a system leads to many inefficiencies since parents are indirectly funding such an initiative through state exchequer. What is needed is a mixed education system where private schooling becomes more affordable (either through Government providing some guidelines for the private schools' fees or Government giving tax reliefs. Such arrangement could make the education system more efficient since Schools will have to get their own funds and they might adopt think of more innovative education methods). It is interesting to observe that USA is a developed and rich nation but its education system is always short of funds (has anyone ever thought that there might be many inefficiencies in the system also). "
"I live in Hawaii and here our schools are not affected by lay offs, our Governor has Furloughed the Department of Education. Two Fridays a month school is closed due to budget cuts. I live in the state with the shortest school year in the nation, now it's even shorter. Instead if raising our GE state tax and cutting unnessary spending our children are paying the price. What's wrong here? Our children are the future of this nation they should not have to suffer because irrational decisions made by our elected officials. Did I mention the Governor in Hawaii has no children....can't we get someone outside to look in and say this is not right? "
"Perhaps budget shortfalls are a good thing if 'parents take back funding' by chipping in a moderate cost per child. While educating children definitely provides a public good, parents should be at least somewhat responsible for the costs as well. If they can't, they should consider carefully their decision to have more children in the first place. Otherwise, the best schools will only be those for the rich who can afford to pay a full private school tuition."
"I'm amazed that people haven't looked at the cost of funding Special Education. In recent years, there has been a rise of autistic children entering our public school....and the law states that autistic children are entitled to a personal aide to be with them in the classroom. It'a about time this matter was discussed and looked into. School districts are spending millions (and that is not an exageration) on providing personal aides for autistic children. There are more fiscally sound ways of education autistic children within their neighborhood schools, and it's about time it was looked into instead allowing this law to drain our school budgets."
"I would also recommend voting with your checkbook when it comes to the support of local elected officials that support education. Let those that make the cuts to education know that your campaign contributions support candidates that make education a priority. It gets their attention. "
"If California were a country it would be about #7 in GDP, it's one of the highest taxed states in the union and 50% of our tax dollars goes to education. Maybe my math is bad but it would seem even in recession years if public education were ran like business & not an extension of government it would be successful. "
"We (the people) already pay to have our children in public schools, paying more money is not the answer. The public school system is not working and throwing more money at it won't make it work. You are correct when you state that parents need to take back their schools. We should be able to keep that tax money and give it directly to the school we want our children to go to, thus eliminating the need for over paid administrators."
"The solution is parent option- parent choice- vouchers. With or without vouchers I have decided that Obama's intent is to indoctrinate our children. I won't let that happen. I will home school."
"We have a very large district in Torrance California that will not let us raise money for our school exclusively. They will spread the money out over all 23,000 kids and 20+ schools, they also won't allow us to raise money to help save our teachers. Other than programs for arts, etc. how can we stop staff cuts at our elementary school of 700? Any thoughts or help are appreciated..."
"To wait another generation for the current system to 'reform' itself is, at best, wishful thinking. Hope is not a stragety. The future is independent public schools. Parents must take back funding before they will get back their schools. The old system must become a 'public option' in a unser-payer system of choice. Here in Alexandria, Virginia, we are creating a parent supported public school."
"Why cut teachers or teacher salaries? The Board & the NJEA should be looking to the Superintendent's salaries and the bloated administrative staff. The Governor is not cutting jobs; he is saying enough is enough. In the past, it has always been, if we have the budget we must spend it or not get it in the subsequent years. This is how The Board, Superintendent, & Admin became so top heavy."