Is Educational Fundraising Out of Control?

With all of the bakesales, events and sales, some are left wondering if it's all too much

Is Educational Fundraising Out of Control?John Puddifoot remembers simpler days. The chair of the Parent Advisory Council (PAC) at Queen Mary Elementary School in Vancouver says that when he attended the school back in the 1960s and 1970s, “almost nothing was done for fundraising.” My, how times have changed. Puddifoot estimates that he spends five or more hours per week on PAC activities, and fundraising ranks as one of its top priorities. And he’s just one of a number of active volunteers. “I work full-time running my own business, and I make the time to become involved,” says Puddifoot, whose two kids, Evalena, 10, and Alex, 7, now attend the school. “It’s not a small time commitment, but I’m happy to contribute to the community and to my children’s education.”

Educational fundraising has become big business in Canada. National numbers are sketchy, but in Ontario alone, schools fundraised more than half a billion dollars in 2005/06, according to a survey conducted by the Ontario-based non-profit People for Education (PFE). (The half-billion dollar figure includes more traditional fundraising as well as income from things like school fees, vending machines and corporate sponsorships.) One school raised a whopping $400,000. And a recent PFE survey focusing exclusively on elementary schools found that 52 percent of reported fundraising goes toward essentials such as textbooks, classroom supplies and computers. Annie Kidder, PFE’s executive director, notes that one of the catalysts for her group’s formation was concern among a small group of parents over being asked to fundraise for textbooks. In the 11 years since then, Kidder observes, the cash collected through fundraising in Canadian schools has risen steadily. “The amounts of money are enormous,” says Kidder. “There’s a sense among parents that they should raise more and more money for their kids’ schools, that this is one of the jobs that parents just have to do.”

Activities range widely, from old standbys like pizza lunches, bake sales, chocolate-covered-almond and wrapping-paper drives to big moneymakers like black-tie galas and “direct-ask” donation campaigns. And this is all added to community fundraisers. “Every direction they turn, parents are saturated with fundraising,” says Naomi Kruse, administrative officer with the Manitoba Association of Parent Councils, and mother of Brandon, 12, and Kirsten, 7. “It can sap a parent, not only financially but also physically and emotionally.” With all the work that volunteers put in versus the amount reaped, Puddifoot says that they would get more monetary benefit if parents simply found part-time jobs and contributed that salary to the school.

What’s behind the rising tide of fundraising? One culprit is obvious — government cutbacks. “Parents shouldn’t be fundraising for equipment, materials or personnel that are necessary for a student to obtain the requirements for graduation,” says Charles Ungerleider, professor of the sociology of education at the University of British Columbia and a former Deputy Minister of Education for B.C. “Fundraising may let the state off the hook for the cost of education.” Kidder agrees. “I think that fundraising masks what isn’t there. So that if you banned all fundraising­ — which I’m certainly not a proponent of­ — it would then highlight that there really isn’t enough money for library books, field trips and the arts.” Rosario Marchese, an Ontario MPP and education critic for the New Democratic Party, adds, “All of that money is coming out of people’s pockets in addition to the taxes they pay. Something is wrong with a funding system that permits this.”

And while funding levels have changed, so have perceived needs. Cutbacks aren’t such a big problem for schools in
affluent neighbourhoods that can simply raise or contribute the funds themselves, notes Kidder. She observes that the consumerist attitude of the culture at large has now seeped into our approach to public education. “It’s not just due to cuts. It’s partly because we’re more self-interested than we used to be. It’s like, “Well, if you don’t give it to me, I’ll just buy it for my kid.” But as Kidder and others point out, the line between essential and optional is often difficult to define. John Puddifoot illustrates with an example. “Our old playground was built with pressure-treated lumber, which contains carcinogens, so it had to be removed, which left our school without a playground. And the school board doesn’t build playgrounds,” he says. “As having playground equipment is important to our parents, we completed a major fundraising effort to replace the old playground, at a cost of over $80,000.”

One of the central debates about educational fundraising is this: can a system be fully public, equal and equitable, while at the same time providing some students in a certain school more, and others, in a different part of town, less? “There’s a sort of double whammy that happens,” says Kidder. “There are communities where kids have books at home and access to arts and sports programs because of the finances of their parents, and then have all of those things at school, too, because their parents can fundraise. And the double inequity is that, in the communities where kids don’t have those things at home, then they also don’t have them at school because their parents can’t fundraise for them.”
Ungerleider agrees. “It’s pretty easy to pass the hat in West Vancouver, one of the most advantaged communities in the country. But if you’re talking about the downtown east side, it’s much more difficult, because the community is less affluent and can’t support it.” The numbers bear this out: PFE found that the top 10 percent of fundraising schools raised more than the bottom 80 percent combined.

A few years ago, the former chair of the PAC at Queen Mary Elementary (which is located on Vancouver’s west side), himself a multi-millionaire, raised hackles and captured headlines by seeking to raise $30,000 by simply asking each family at the school for $100. Puddifoot, the current chair, says they still accept donations “but we’re not banging the drum, so to speak.” Puddifoot’s PAC runs an annual gala that raises $6,000 to $12,000 each year, and organizes a number of other moneymakers. But he’s not apologizing for fundraising efforts, pointing out that he and his fellow volunteers work hard for the money they raise. And while he has sympathy for those of lesser means, he’s convinced that any school, in B.C. anyway, can raise funds. He notes the province’s lottery corporation offers a gaming grant of $20 per student, which is available to a PAC for the asking — it’s just a matter of filling out a few forms. “There are schools on the east side that don’t even have a functioning PAC,” says Puddifoot, a hint of irritation in his voice. “You don’t need to be rich to fill out that paperwork: the money is there, the government wants to give it to you, but they don’t have the inclination to go and take it.”

There are signs of a growing movement against educational fundraising. In 2006, concerned about the development of a two-tier system, a school board trustee in Victoria sued the B.C. government over school fees, arguing that they contravene the province’s School Act — and its responsibility to provide free education for all children. The B.C. Supreme Court agreed, banning all fees for materials and equipment in courses that lead to graduation. In Ontario, the province’s New Democratic Party introduced a private member’s bill in the spring of last year that sought to prohibit fundraising for essentials. Cleverly called the “No More Tiers Act,” the bill — which was not passed into law by the ruling Liberals — would have banned the use of privately raised funds for things like textbooks, teacher salaries and school repairs.

Despite such moves, parents shouldn’t get their hopes up that the era of fundraising is over, says Kidder. “If we keep on taking public education for granted and not looking at it in a clear and critical way, we’ll probably see more and more and more private money in public schools, and with it more inequity.” So a parent whose child is just entering school should buckle up and get ready for the deluge. “You will definitely be asked for money, there’s no question. You’ll send money on pizza-lunch day or spend it on wrapping paper or cookie dough, and you’ll have to go to the spring fair, and get ready to eat a lot of chocolate bars because you didn’t manage to sell them to all your friends,” she laughs. “That’s the biggest downside — how much crap you eat.”

Contributing editor Tim Johnson is getting his wallet ready to buy chocolate-covered almonds when his niece, Brooke, hits school age.

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