Forget Bake Sales – Schools Need Development Plans

Educate our State graphic

There are seven tabs and five windows open on my laptop right now. As I toggle back and forth between them I realize the irony: I commence work on this blog post about innovative fundraising strategies in education while I am finalizing the annual fundraising campaign letter for my kid’s public middle school. A PTA President’s job is never done.

Over the years, that job has become less about signing up chaperones for the school dance (“No slow dancing less than arms length apart!”) and more about strategic planning for long term fiscal security and outstanding educational opportunity for all. Oh sure, we all remember our parents baking cupcakes for the track team bake sale, and track spikes still need replacing each year. But those spikes are going to be among the smallest line items on a modern PTA budget. Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.

Actually, Kansas is in pretty good shape for public school funding comparatively. The Sunflower State (Seriously? Who knew?) ranks 20th among the 50 states, giving each student roughly $12,056 per year with which to be educated. California, the state where I and my three children reside, is 47th, and spends approximately $8,667 per student per year.

Globally we’re in even worse shape. US education systems are antiquated and delivery methods are failing. We send our children to school for fewer days per year than our global competitors: an average of 180 days (grades 6-8) compared with 220 days in China and India.  And we’re so far behind with respect to college graduation rates, it’s a little scary. Ask any number of experts exactly how much it costs to educate a child and they’ll tell you what I learned 5 years ago when my concern about education budget cuts reached a fever pitch: Nobody Knows.

Someone might have known the answer when Dorothy Gale was in grade school. In those days books had a fixed price; paper, chalk, pencils, and erasers were the tools of the trade. Teaching was a profession that came with respect in the community. And, of course, as a nation we had our eyes on the prize: to prove Americans were the smartest kids in the global sandbox. And for many years our process was good enough to get us there. It was good enough to put a man on the moon. It was good enough to discover the Polio vaccine. And it was good enough to build not only the clogged ribbon of freeways that traverse California, but that beacon of all things 21st century: Silicon Valley.

I believe that it is in Silicon Valley where our trouble began. The innovation in computing that enabled the global economy also enabled other nations to get smarter about education. Particularly in developing nations where decision makers could be nimble and innovative in their policies and practices, students were suddenly competing with Americans not only in smarts but also in numbers – the new workforce was filled with international voices and we began to see American students frequently not making the grade.

American parents started taking a hard look at their kids’ schools and discovered the dismal state of affairs with respect to local school funding. There was money missing to buy everything from pencils and paper to advanced technology: science and computer labs, 3D printers, tablets to further the goals of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) focused education, language teachers, ceramics studios, and digital photography labs. And, as the great recession continued, there was money missing suddenly for the things that make excellent public education the backbone of society: quality school lunches, nurses, counselors, librarians, gym teacher, custodians… I could go on. Bake sales can’t cover these costs. Simply put: dollar cupcakes were out; development plans were in.

Parents that might have considered private school under different economic conditions were finding those costs too high to bear and so took the option that remained “free:” public school. And just as they tucked a healthy, peanut-free lunch into their kindergarteners’ backpacks, they tucked their own portfolios of skills into the school fundraising marketplace and began to raise the bar. A simple Google search will tell you this: “Innovative Fundraising Ideas for Schools” brings up  4,760,000 results. The New York Times reported earlier this year that the school fundraising industry is now worth $1.4 billion. That’s a lot of magazines. But even as the industry grows nationwide, locally smart parents have realized that fundraiser fatigue is a real thing. Very few families are able to dedicate upwards of 50 hours organizing a gala or auction and hate the idea of knocking on their neighbors doors with one more wrapping paper catalog. And so they are turning to their business school training and working smarter, not harder.

Two allies in this mindshift are technology and philanthropy. A 21st century PTA fundraising chair will sit down with the school principal before school breaks for the summer to gain an understanding of spending priorities from both administrative and classroom perspectives. They’ll find out what is on teacher wish lists for the coming school year and schedule out a calendar of DonorsChoose requests using that organizations’ model of resources through networking to make a difference in the classroom and hold decision makers accountable for the dearth of public school spending. They use their own LinkedIn networks to discover which local companies will partner with their schools in particular areas of need. They write grants. They create endowments. And sometimes they play a little dirty. Big bank moving into the neighborhood right next door to the local credit union? Sounds like the perfect target for a big ticket ask: Why not sponsor our event (to the tune of $10-$50K or more) in order to show the community how much you want to look after the neighborhood kids? It’s a win-win.

Or is it? This kind of business development wasn’t meant for the little red school house. And all those school houses were not created equal.

The price we pay for trying desperately to make sure the kids in our school have a shot at Princeton is inequity. Every California student is given the same basic pot of cash, but some districts get a bigger piece of the property tax pie. Some schools are fundraising upwards of $1000 extra dollars per year per pupil while some are relieved to be coming in closer to $25 per year per pupil. It’s more than a stark difference; it’s a child’s whole adult life.

In San Francisco there’s been a bright light shining on this issue of equity for years. Reporter and public school dad Jeremy Adam Smith published a special report on education inequality in the San Francisco public press earlier this year which garnered a lot of heated schoolyard discussion. I was among the heated: after serving as the fundraising chair at our little (failing) elementary school the PTA budget climbed from $12K annually to nearly $300K. The overwhelming personal response I had to this success was guilt: how could I be doing for our school and allowing the school (the children!) down the block to fail? And so I turned to advocacy and political action as a way to combat spending cuts that have risen to $20 Billion dollars since 2008. California now has a statewide education advocacy organization called Educate Our State that I am proud to have co-founded.

I’m not so hot under the collar any more. I have learned that we all must do what we can to make up the gap until our nation is re-aligned on both the need for competitive teacher salaries and wanting our students to be thought of (again) as the best and the brightest: the ones who will lead us all into the next new world. And only in using (and sharing!) the skills we have learned from successful non-profits about innovation in fundraising will we manage to do what a cupcake can’t: ensure every student has a full belly and a new tablet to prepare him for a day of real learning.


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