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In California, private fundraising has become a way for parents to raise money for their kids’ schools and compensate for inadequacies in state funding.

Homey efforts like parent-led bake sales used to be enough to cover the extras, things like new playground equipment or after-school clubs.

But over the years, fundraising has become more sophisticated, as parents formed nonprofit fundraising entities known as school foundations. At some schools, typically in wealthier San Diego neighborhoods, that fundraising has been remarkably successful – bringing in hundreds of thousands of a year.

One recent study found that the number of parent and community-led school fundraising nonprofits more than tripled nationally between 1995 and 2010. The amount of money they raised more than quadrupled in that time.

The New York Times zoomed in this week on the Coronado Unified School District, where foundation money helped pay for arts and music classes, sports medicine classes at the high school and a digital media academy at the middle school, where students learn animation and how to design buildings using 3D printers.

To illustrate the point that wealthier districts can provide what other districts don’t, they compared Coronado with San Diego Unified, whose foundations raised a fraction of the amount per pupil as Coronado’s.

But there’s one flaw in that comparison: Coronado Unified has just a fraction of the students – 3,200 compared with San Diego Unified’s 130,000.

A more appropriate comparison would be to hold up Coronado’s fundraising haul to the private money raised within certain San Diego Unified clusters (these are groups of schools bunched by neighborhoods). School foundations in La Jolla and Scripps Ranch clusters have cleaned up, for example.

We turned up a few major takeaways during our examination of school foundations earlier this year:

• Schools in wealthier neighborhoods raise a lot of private money from school foundations, boosters and PTA groups.

• Schools in high-poverty areas raised relatively small amounts of private money, but tend to get a lot of federal and state support set aside for high-poverty schools.

• It’s actually the schools in middle-class areas, which don’t have much of either, that tend to get the hose.

The money raised in one school typically stays at that school. One researcher told me that she knew of one California school where classrooms fundraise individually.

Districts like Del Mar Union have tried to spread the wealth by putting fundraised money into one big pot, then distributing it evenly.

But parents who run local school foundations have told me that the reason that money goes directly to their kid’s classroom is precisely the reason why fundraising is so successful. Take that funnel away, and the spigot would close, they worry.

There’s an argument – and I’ve made it – that school foundations exacerbate the existing inequalities between poor and affluent schools. But after months of reporting on the topic, I discovered that there’s one major element that keeps parents from getting too fired up about this: At its core, this argument asks us to withhold money from some students unless everyone has the same thing.

And it overlooks perhaps the bigger tragedy in the school foundation system: the burden of ensuring all students have what they need in the classroom has effectively shifted from the state to the parent.

In recent years, foundation money has turned into a kind-of budget staple at cash-strapped schools, paying for things like librarians, teachers aids or school nurses – things that schools need.

For parents, this has meant spending hours drumming up cash, selling cookie dough or gift wrap, with the implicit threat that if they don’t raise enough, their children won’t have music, art or a full-time librarian.

The pressure to fundraise, coupled with ballooning class-sizes, inspired Meridith Coady to remove her kid from the elementary school he attended, and enroll him at a charter school.

“We’re telling kids that they had to go sell gift wrap otherwise they wouldn’t have science class,” she said. “There wasn’t anything unethical about it, but it just felt icky.”

But school foundations are more of a Band-Aid to a fundamental funding inadequacy than a long-term solution.

Theoretically, the Local Control Funding Formula– which basically sends money to districts in one big pot and allows them to divvy it up – should give school districts the flexibility to shift funding to areas that need extra support.

But a wakeup call came last spring as the district was looking at its budget for the coming years. It turned out, the district wasn’t going to have as much money to spread around as it anticipated.

Parents like Coady realize that deeper reforms are needed. Perhaps the district could lobby the state for additional funds. Or maybe schools and parents could further scrutinize the district’s spending plan and urge it to re-prioritize.

But reforms like these take time, and there’s no guarantee that they’ll actually pay off. In the meantime, parents will continue to donate what they can to make sure their kids have what they need in the classroom.

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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