Written by: Sue Winton, Associate Professor, York University, Canada
As summer holidays approach, it’s wonderful to see so many parents out at fun fairs raising money for their children’s schools — or is it?
In fact, school fundraising, while often heralded for increasing parent engagement and providing much-needed resources, may come at the expense of creating equitable and inclusive public schools.
As a researcher of education policy at York University, I have examined policies related to fundraising in public schools in Canada, the United States and Australia, and why many parents find fundraising hard to resist. I’ve also explored why fundraising policies are difficult to change.
My own and others’ work shows that school fundraising presents problems: it perpetuates inequities between students and schools, it excludes some students and parents from school activities and it enables government under-investment in public education. Ultimately, school fundraising undermines democracy.
School fundraising includes any activity that school staff, students and parents or other caregivers undertake to raise money to supplement school budgets. These activities include selling products, running events like fun fairs or hosting casino nights, seeking donations and sponsorships, partnering with the private sector and applying for grants.
In its 2019 survey of 1,254 publicly funded Ontario elementary and secondary schools, the not-for-profit organization People For Education found that 99 per cent of surveyed elementary schools, and 89 per cent of secondary schools, reported fundraising at their schools (the organization did not provide a breakdown of how many elementary schools versus secondary schools were in the survey sample). The schools came from 70 different provincial school boards.
To be sure, many people benefit from school fundraising: students who enjoy new athletic facilities and robust libraries, parents who meet neighbours at events, teachers who can bring scientists into their classrooms and administrators who support parents eager to be involved in schools. But there are hidden costs.
First, there is the issue of equity. Through school fundraising, inequities that exist outside schools are reproduced inside them. This happens because schools have differing abilities to raise money. Schools that generate a lot of funds, typically located in more affluent neighbourhoods, can give students access to technology and other resources that other schools can’t.
Although schools classified as having high needs may receive extra funding from their boards, these funds do not close the gaps created by fundraising. And, as the organization People for Education has shown, the gaps between the amounts generated by “rich” and “poor” schools are widening.
These gaps should concern everyone. In their book The Spirit Level, epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett demonstrate that everyone benefits from living in a more equal society.
More equal societies have lower homicide rates, lower rates of imprisonment, fewer high school dropouts, lower rates of mental illness, higher math and literary attainment, better health and higher-quality social relationships than less equal societies.
Undermining inclusive schools
Fundraising can also undermine efforts to build inclusive schools in which diversity is embraced and everyone feels safe, accepted and valued. While advocates argue fundraising is a good way to build and strengthen school communities, it can also have the opposite effect.
Parents who cannot or do not want to participate in fundraising may be discouraged from joining committees that also have decision-making functions. Thus, they miss out on opportunities to have their voices heard. In Ontario, these committees are often school councils: majority-parent, legislated advisory bodies who are also allowed to fundraise. While their main purpose is supposedly to increase accountability of the education system and improve student achievement, fundraising is one of the main activities of school councils.
Although principals have final approval, parents who raise money and decide how to spend it influence the resources and opportunities available to the school in ways that reflect their own interests – interests that might not be shared by all caregivers of children in the school.
Furthermore, as demonstrated in a study in California, parents who don’t raise funds may feel their non-monetary contributions to the school, including chaperoning on field trips and volunteering in the classroom, are valued less than contributions of fundraising parents.
Fundraising can also exclude the very students it’s meant to benefit. This happens through initiatives that ask kids to sell magazines, cookie dough or other products and then reward those who do. Since not all kids know adults who can or will buy what’s for sale, they are unable to participate in fundraising challenges. This problem may be exacerbated when classes compete to see which one raises the most money since some children can’t help their class win.
Is it necessary?
My research shows that many people, including some parents students and educators, feel fundraising is necessary and desirable: there simply isn’t enough money to fund what they believe students need.
However, using fundraising to fill gaps actually perpetuates the problem and creates new ones. First, fundraising to compensate for governments’ underfunding of desired resources in public schools offers little incentive for them to increase education budgets.
Second, school fundraising shifts responsibility of providing high-quality education to private actors, including parents, other caregivers, community members, civil society organizations and even businesses. Funding from these sources is unreliable and can hinder long-term planning. This shift also enables funders to decide what will and won’t be funded.
In the U.S. and Australia, philanthropists, foundations, think tanks and businesses play an increasingly influential role in education governance and policy-making that align with their ideologies and priorities. As a result, the public quality of allegedly public education is being narrowed and transformed as the voices of teachers, school administrators, parents, students and other members of society are marginalized.
Democracies cannot allow private interests – whether those of advantaged parents, philanthropists, foundations or businesses – determine what is funded or what the priorities are in our public schools. Instead, parents and educators seeking to improve public education need to take the time and energy expended on fundraising and use it to advocate for robust public funding of schools that benefit all children and families.
Sue Winton receives funding from Canada's Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. She is an advisor to Ontario's Knowledge Network on Student Well-Being's Community of Practice on Equitable and Inclusive Education.