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The Inherent Inequity in Parent Engagement Between Schools Serving Children Raised in Affluence and Those Raised in Poverty

January 29, 2016

Laura McKenna’s recent Atlantic article describes how school fundraising by affluent parents contributes to inequities in overall school funding and offers an interesting solution to the problems such fundraising creates. She also describes– but underestimates– how the inequity in parent engagement goes beyond funding.

The inequities in fund raising capacity between schools serving affluent children and schools serving middle class and poor children is stark. While wealthy parents can stage auctions that include Super Bowl tickets that pull in hundreds of thousands of dollars poor parents stage ongoing bake sales that yield five figures over the course of a year if they are lucky. These funds are used to acquire playgrounds, technology, field trips to distant museums, and— in some cases— additional staff to reduce class sizes. The booster clubs at these schools— and those of many middle class schools– fund athletic equipment, pre-season trips to Florida for baseball teams, and uniforms that the athletes can keep once they graduate. The disparities that result are obvious to anyone who has worked in both worlds and to anyone who attends sporting events between affluent schools and those serving children raised in poverty.

But Ms. McKenna also notes another more critical difference between the parent engagement in these schools— time and social capital:

Clearly, affluent communities have greater financial resources to support their schools. Parents there also have the time and social capital needed to organize elaborate fundraisers and fill out the lengthy legal paperwork required to establish these foundations. With these enormous resources, parents in affluent communities can raise far more money for their schools than parents in other locations.

But time and social capital provide advantages far beyond the capacity to raise money. A single parent who is working two jobs to make ends meet or two parents who work split shifts often cannot attend their local school’s PTO meetings, cannot be released from work to attend parent-teacher meetings, and do not have the time to help their children with school work or science fair projects. Despite what the middle class media and school reformers believe, the number of time-limited parents far exceeds the number of helicopter parents and this has an even more devastating impact on inequality than money spent on schools…. and does not lend itself to an easy fix.

Ms. McKenna does have an interesting idea for how to close the gap between affluent and poor schools:

Rather than restricting affluent parents from contributing to their public schools or shaming them for their efforts, perhaps they could be encouraged to think about public education beyond their town boundaries—partnering with schools in less affluent areas and forging a fellowship over time. In better understanding that public education extends beyond the five-mile radius of their communities, parents might be willing to share a portion of their considerable resources and social capital to benefit other kids.

The college town I live in— like many communities in New England– has a sister community abroad. Maybe the schools in our town which do an admirable job of raising funds for the children in town could partner with a deprived urban or rural school in our region. In doing so we might emphasize that the impact of poverty is not limited to third world countries but hurts children in our nation as well and that as citizens we should do everything possible to help our nearby neighbors as well as our global neighbors. To those whom much is given, much should be expected.

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