Not always a cakewalk

As New York City starts collecting data on inequities in PTA fundraising, the search is on for potential solutions

PHOTO: Chalkbeat photo
Families from Community Roots Charter School in Brooklyn hold a bake sale.

When Susan Moesker’s son started sixth grade five years ago at Boerum Hill School for International Studies in Brooklyn, there was no active PTA. The school, she said, “has a wonderful and diverse student body,” which Moesker loved, but not all of the parents could afford to donate extra time and money to the school.

“We have families who have tremendous ability to give, and we have families who have no ability to give whatsoever,” she said.

So Moesker and other parents who could banded together, and through bake sales and chili cook-offs, raised about $800 that first year. The group stayed active, grew an executive board and reported $6,585 in revenue in 2016, according to its latest tax return available on Guidestar. But while the momentum was upward, the receipts remained modest.

So a couple of years ago, the PTA decided to spring for a gala — the type of fundraiser you might see at nearby P.S. 261, which raised almost $900,000 in 2016, or at P.S. 58, which raised $1.4 million, through a combination of donations, grants, and services parents pay for at the school, according to Guidestar.

Moesker’s PTA was able to secure a venue for free, and the gala and silent auction raked in about $36,000 last year. With the help of corporate matching of some parents’ direct donations, the PTA expects to pull in $83,580 this year, according to its online budget projection. While this is significantly more than the average $1,000 city PTAs raise, according to one city official, it’s still well below the million-dollar budgets of the richest PTAs.

It’s natural for parents to want to fill in perceived gaps in resources in their children’s classrooms. But since many public school parents can’t afford to donate large sums of money, the powerhouse PTAs are contributing to the already vast divide between wealthy and needy schools — a longstanding problem that is coming under new scrutiny.

Last month, the New York City Council passed a bill requiring the Department of Education to publish by December 2019 an annual report on how much each parent-teacher association or parent association is raising.

Although the education department already collects this information through each school’s principal, it is not posted anywhere for the public to see, says Councilman Mark Treyger, who sponsored the bill and is the chairman of the council’s education committee.

The bill requires the department to post the report on its website, deliver it to the council’s speaker and provide demographic information about the student population — race, ethnicity, English learner status — at each PTA’s school.

By making the data more accessible, Treyger says, he hopes to launch an informed conversation about how the city might address the “glaring disparities” that arise from the PTA Haves and Have Nots.

“I don’t believe your zip code should dictate the opportunities you receive,” he said in a recent interview.

What other cities are doing

Treyger’s bill isn’t the first time New York — or other cities — have wrestled with questions of fairness surrounding PTA funds, which schools may use to pay assistant teachers, fund electives or sponsor after-school programs.

In 1997, for example, parents at P.S. 41 in Greenwich Village learned that one of the school’s teaching positions was being eliminated. Parents rallied, raising $36,000 almost overnight, nearly enough to cover the $46,000-salary of the teacher being ousted. Then schools Chancellor Rudy Crew blocked the parents’ effort and ordered a moratorium on similar PTA moves, saying it wasn’t fair to schools that didn’t have the same resources.

Today, regulations set by the Chancellor govern how parent associations can operate, including what they can spend their money on and what financial disclosures they have to make. For example, PTAs can’t pay for additional teachers in core subjects.

But inequities persist. At P.S. 334 The Anderson School on the Upper West Side, the PTA is already advertising and soliciting donations for its 27th annual auction next March. Suggestions for donated items range from $25 gift cards to $10,000 vacations. In 2015, the PTA reported revenue of close to $1 million, according to Guidestar and was ranked in 2013 as the country’s 10th richest PTA in a report by the Center for American Progress, a progressive advocacy group.

The parent organization at P.S. 6 on the Upper East Side showed revenue of more than $900,000 in its latest filing and is the 16th richest in the country, according to the same report. Its website suggests an annual donation of $1,200 — though also states “any amount your family is able to give” is welcome. The money helps fund assistant teachers for every classroom, performing arts programs, school-wide supplies, special programs and staff development among other expenses, according to the website’s breakdown.

To address this disparity, Councilman Stephen T. Levin loosely floated the idea, at the hearing on Treyger’s City Council bill, of a progressive taxation system, in which PTAs or PAs might donate a chunk of their raised revenue above a certain level — such as $100,000 or $200,000 — but didn’t say exactly where the money would go. Levin acknowledged, however, that such a tax would be “a pretty serious step” and wondered what other cities are doing.

The answer is that some are already experimenting with ways to make PTA giving more equitable. In the Santa Monica-Malibu school system, parents can donate directly to their schools if it’s to beautify the campus or sponsor field trips. But if parents want to pay for teachers’ salaries or school-day programs, they must also donate to another pool of money that’s then redistributed to needier schools.

In Portland, a central foundation collects one-third of the proceeds any school raises above  $10,000. So for every dollar past this mark, 33 cents go toward equity grants that are delivered to the district’s under-resourced schools.  

It’s not clear in New York City whether rules governing PTAs and PAs would permit donations to other schools or efforts to compel gifts to other organizations. To be legal, PTAs would likely have to adopt clear disclaimers, stating if or when donations could be redirected, said Cliff Perlman, an attorney with New York-based firm Perlman and Perlman, which specializes in non-profit legal matters.

“You’re giving money to an entity and expecting” it to be used “a certain way,” Perlman said. The recipient “is supposed to honor that intent or not take the money.”

Others worry parents will be less inclined to donate if the money isn’t going to benefit their children, resulting in a smaller philanthropic pie for everyone.

And in Malibu, fury over the district’s plan to share PTA funds between the Santa Monica and Malibu schools fueled a desire among some Malibu parents to separate from the district. It still includes both communities but has agreed to establish separate fundraising models.

A voluntary approach — for now

Ben Arthur, a former parent at P.S. 87, the William T. Sherman School on the Upper West Side, said the “blamey-shamey” critiques that wealthier PTAs sometimes weather are unfair.

“These are rational people who are being faced with schools that are being underfunded comically, criminally, by the state,” he said. “It’s really not the fault of P.S. 87 parents that they’re being put in a position to fill these massive gaps.” In 2016, the school’s PTA pulled in more than $1.8 million in combined donations and programs that parents directly pay for, according to Guidestar.

Abigail Edgecliffe-Johnson, another parent at the school, says its auction and fairs are so successful because parents not only can donate more money than parents at other schools but also have the time to devote to planning events and have access to high-value items to put up for bid. Parents who work on Broadway might donate tickets to hot shows, and Arthur, through his connections to the music industry, once secured a three-hour recording session at a local studio for auction.

At the same time, “It is not fair that we are all in public schools, but our school has the ability to fill those shortfalls,” Edgecliffe-Johnson said.

So in 2015, she and Arthur co-founded School 2 School, which raises money for schools in District 7, a needy district in the Bronx. Last May, a Bronx elementary school teacher turned to School 2 School when she needed art supplies for her students. She wanted them to illustrate stories they’d written, but she didn’t have sketch pads, crayons and glue sticks for her students to use. She filed a $690 request on School 2 School, and four months later it was granted, along with another $122 to help finance other activities.

School 2 School has raised $18,814 and funded 40 projects over the past three years, according to its website.

“Your generosity provided my students with essential resources to inspire them to do their best writing,” she wrote in a thank-you comment on the fundraising page.

But some contend that concern about PTAs is just another way to avoid addressing more fundamental inequities and divides.

Marco Battistella, a public school parent who just finished a two-year term as co-chair of the Chancellor Parent Advisory Council, said that the composition of the city’s PTAs and their ability to fundraise usually come down to a school’s demographics, and ultimately to economic integration in schools.

“Yes, there are in fact some schools that raise significant amounts of money and many schools —a majority of schools — they raise very little money,” Battistella said. But “the way to go,” he said, “is to make sure that the demographics in the school are more equally distributed.”

“To be blunt,” he said in written testimony over Treyger’s bill, “no number of bake sales will ever cancel the ill effects of continued systemic underfunding of NYC’s public schools by the state government.”  

Compare and Contrast

Denver pays substitute teachers about $100 a day (when there’s no strike). Here’s how that stacks up.

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Substitute teacher Steven Mares, right, works with a student at Denver Green School in 2016. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Among the many reactions we’ve seen to Denver’s likely teacher strike, one standout has been surprise at how much the district pays substitute teachers.

During a strike, Denver Public Schools plans to pay substitutes twice the regular rate, or $212 a day. Some of our readers expressed surprise that people who step in to cover the classes of teachers who are absent would normally be paid just $106 a day.

That’s actually the low end of the substitute teacher pay scale in Denver. Retired teachers earn $123 a day, and any substitute who has worked 60 full days earns the title “super guest teacher” and is paid significantly more in subsequent days.

Still, since Denver teachers are preparing to strike over low pay, we thought it would be interesting to answer the question of whether Denver’s substitute teacher rate is unusually low. A sampling of other big-city rates shows that many districts do pay substitutes more, though usually not by all that much.

In some large districts, the regular rate can be close to Denver’s special strike rate. New York City guarantees substitutes $185.15 a day, while Los Angeles substitutes earn $191 a day — and that rate rises to $258 if the teacher stays in the same placement for more than 20 straight days. Boston substitutes earn $141 a day — a figure that doubles if they stay in one position for an extended period of time.

Other districts offer pay that’s more in line with Denver’s regular rate. Washington, D.C., pays substitute teachers $120 a day, noting on its website, “We are excited to offer some of the most competitive pay in the region.” Indianapolis began paying substitutes between $90 and $115 two years ago amid a broader overhaul to how schools are supplied with subs.

And some districts pay far less; the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, says the low end of the range is $75 a day. One person who saw the news from Denver on Twitter wrote, “SOMEONE GETS PAID THAT MUCH TO SUB?????? My 75$ a day is aching.” She said she worked as a substitute teacher in rural Ohio.

Rates are often set in contracts between districts and their teachers unions. Many districts pay retired teachers more than others, and also have different rates for people who fill new roles daily and people who step into one role for an extended period of time. Substitutes must meet standards set by their states and districts and do not typically receive benefits.

In Colorado, unlike in some states, substitutes do not need to be licensed teachers or pursuing licensure. A college degree is not even required, although many districts do not usually hire substitutes who have not graduated from college.

People who work as substitute teachers are unlikely to relocate for higher pay, so the pay comparison that might best illuminate Denver’s chances of recruiting large numbers of substitute teachers during a strike is with nearby districts.

There, Denver’s regular rate appears to be on par with the market. The nearby Jefferson County and Douglas County districts each pay $100 a day, while Cherry Creek, an affluent district adjoining Denver, pays $90.

But far more than pay will influence how many teachers Denver is able to bring on to replace the thousands of educators who are expected to strike.

Denver already has low unemployment, so there aren’t many qualified people looking for daily work — at least not under normal circumstances, when the district has a hard time finding enough substitute teachers. The district is hoping that the tens of thousands of furloughed federal workers in Colorado who have gone without pay for weeks will step up to fill classrooms in the event of a strike, if the federal government is still shut down at that time.

People considering the short-term work would also have to be willing to cross the picket line. Already, some people who say they are Denver educators have condemned potential substitutes as scabs, willing to side with the district over its employees in the dispute over teacher pay.

That dynamic could potentially entice at least a few Coloradans into Denver’s classrooms. “If Denver public schools is looking for substitute teachers who are just educated generally and not specifically in education theory to help break the strike,” one person tweeted, “I could probably chip in a few hours.”

But the tension appears more likely to keep people who are approved to work in Denver classrooms away.

“As a sometimes substitute in Denver, I stand with the teachers,” one person tweeted. “I will not take jobs in DPS during the strike. The double pay rate is NOT worth the stain on my soul.”

“Money is tight. I’m qualified to be an emergency sub and I’d probably enjoy it,” tweeted another person who identifies herself as a nurse. “But I will put my time in on their line, not behind it.”

Moving

Tennessee’s next education chief starts in February. Here’s how she’s prepping.

Penny Schwinn soon will become Tennessee's education commissioner under Republican Gov. Bill Lee. She is leaving her job as chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe/ Getty Images)

Penny Schwinn is scheduled on Feb. 4 to take the reigns of Tennessee’s education department, where she’ll oversee 600 full-time employees and work on new Gov. Bill Lee’s agenda for public education.

Schwinn is now winding down her obligations in Texas, where as chief deputy commissioner over academics she has been responsible for the work of about 350 employees and half of the programs of the Texas Education Agency.

“As you would want with any public official, I want to make sure we have a really strong transition so that my team is taken care of and the work moves forward in Texas without massive disruption,” she said.

She plans to pack and move to Tennessee next week and expects her family to join her in the spring.

“My husband and I have a 6-year-old and 3-year-old at home, so we’re helping them through this transition and making sure they feel supported in our move,” she said of their two daughters, who eventually will attend public schools in Nashville.

Schwinn, 36, was the final cabinet appointment announced by Lee before the Republican governor took office over the weekend. She is a career educator who started in a Baltimore classroom with Teach For America, founded a charter school in her hometown of Sacramento, California, and has worked as a top state administrator in Delaware and Texas.

In an interview Wednesday with Chalkbeat, she described how she’s straddling two states and getting up to speed for her new job.

TNReady will be Job One, said Schwinn, who is poring over a recent audit of Tennessee’s problem-plagued testing program.

She plans to dig into details to prepare for testing that begins on April 15 under current vendor Questar. Simultaneously, she’ll scrutinize the state’s request for proposals outlining what Tennessee wants from its next testing company when the assessment program moves to a new contract next school year.

The request for proposals is expected to be released in the next few weeks.

“I’m going to be the person who is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the new vendor is incredibly strong for Tennessee students, so I want to see everything we’re requesting, ask questions, and make last-minute changes if that’s necessary,” she said.

Tennessee has struggled to deliver its own assessment cleanly since transitioning in 2016 to TNReady, which is aligned to new academic standards and was designed for most students to take online. Three straight years of problems either with online administration or scoring have dogged the state and seriously undermined its accountability work, putting everyone on edge with testing.

In hiring Schwinn, Lee touted her assessment work in two states, including cleaning up behind disruptions that marred testing in Texas soon after she arrived in 2016.

In Tennessee, Schwinn promises tight vendor management, whether it’s with Questar this school year or multiple companies that take over this fall.

“It’s incredibly important that we have accurate data about how our children are performing in Tennessee,” she said of TNReady. “This is my background both in Delaware and Texas in terms of assessment. It’s a good space for me to dig into the work and become an integral part of the team.”

In Texas, Schwinn came under fire for a $4.4 million no-bid award for a contract to collect special education data. A state audit released last September found that she failed to disclose having received professional development training from the person who eventually won a subcontract, which later was canceled at a cost of more than $2 million to the state, according to The Texas Tribune.

While Schwinn said she didn’t try to influence the contract, she told Chalkbeat that she and her department “learned a lot” through that experience, prompting an overhaul of the state’s procurement process.

“It’s important to have transparency when you’re a public official,” she said. “I believe strongly about that.”

As Tennessee’s education commissioner, it’s unlikely that she’ll serve on the evaluation committee that will choose its next testing company, but she plans to be “heavily involved” in the process as she works with programmatic, assessment, and technology experts.

“From a 30,000-foot view, commissioners typically aren’t on those selection panels. They’re able to ask questions and provide direction for the team,” she said.

Schwinn was in Nashville last week when Lee announced her hiring.

Until she is sworn in, interim Commissioner Lyle Ailshie is in charge, and he attended the governor’s first cabinet meeting on Tuesday.