How the PTA Ensures that NYC’s Educational System Remains Inequitable by Margo Hansen

In 2007, the New York City Department of Education (DoE) enacted a new plan that would restructure school funding for over 1,400 schools. The plan, known as the “Fair Student Funding” formula, was intended to redirect budgeting towards schools that needed it the most in attempts to address the disparities in New York’s education system. Despite the initiative’s goal to curb school inequities, New York City remains the city with the most most segregated schools in the United States. The formula, though regarded by many as relatively progressive, never lived up to its many promises. The budget for wealthier schools was not limited and contrary to the formula’s goals, schools with resources scarcity hardly saw their budget raised. The failure of the new budgeting plan is often traced back to the Great Recession’s effect on the federal education budget, yet, the persistent inequality between NYC schools is actively being upheld by one important unlikely source: the Parent Teacher Associations (PTA).

In 2017, 19 of 50 of the country’s “richest” PTAs were in New York. Though the concept of a “rich” PTA is ambiguous in itself, these school associations are conspicuously changing the way in which students across the city are being educated. According to a 2013-2014 report conducted by the Center for American Progress, it was revealed that the 50 richest PTAs in the United States raised nearly $43 million that school year. PTA funding, including funds of this scale, do not appear on state or federal books.

In 2017, the money raised by the richest PTAs of NYC was compiled and posted on “Inside Schools”, a popular website that provides information about the city’s schools. Of these schools was NYC’s PS87 in the Upper West Side that raised a staggering $1,575,986. PS87, like most schools in this list, is a predominantly white school. But where does all this money come from? PTAs at these affluent public schools do not shy away from directly and indirectly asking parents for large sums of money. The website of Upper East Sides P.S. 6, has been “suggesting” annual donations upwards of $1,200, making up a large portion of the PTA’a recent annual revenue of over $900,000. Other examples of PTA fundraising strategies include anything from small bake sales to huge school-wide galas.

In the comment section of the “Inside Schools” page titled “Check out the country’s richest 50 PTAs (19 in New York City)”, one can find heated backlash and passionate arguments: whether or not these funds are necessary for students at PS87 and other alike schools, and whether these funds are fair next to schools who cannot raise funds of this scale. Many of the arguments follow that schools like PS87 don’t get the same state funding due to the “Fair Student Funding”(FSF) formula, which is correct. The formula prioritizes schools with less access to resources and in the most need of larger state funding. PS87 does not fall in this category. The flaw in these colorblind arguments does not lie in their incorrect assessments of the formula, it lies in the failure to acknowledge that in the educational system, race and money are undeniably intertwined.

To acknowledge the fact that PTA funding of such a magnitude is part of an inequitable system would be to acknowledge that schools in New York City are riddled with white supremacy. Parents of these white-dominated schools have consciously and continuously rejected this idea. From the refusal to integrate schools to the upkeep of such PTA funding schemes, affluent white parents of NYC have maintained a system in which their kids thrive off of anti-Blackness. As affluent white students at white-dominated schools continue to thrive off of PTA money, Black and latinx students in under-funded schools are maintained at an under-privileged social strata. This system is present in all realms of social hierarchies in the United States. Though countless accounts of pushback against this have been present in the politics of public schools, one driving argument has prevented any substantial change: “There is no crime in wanting to give directly to your child’s education”. This is same conundrum drives parents’ school choice, a conundrum that is actively working against the motivations of the “Fair Student Formula” and effectively holding an antiquated system in place.

The premise that this argument is fundamentally flawed and ignorant to all substantial proof that it upholds a racist system is obvious. Yet, school governance boards and the DoE in particular have been easily complicit and compliant to the reactionary pushback of white parents. Catering to these relentless PTA groups based on the colorblind argument that any parent would donate that much if they could is part of a much larger trend: the overall decrease in racially motivated policies and discussions in New York’s education system. The failure of the Fair Student Funding formula was therefore perhaps never set up to function. Though in theory the FSF was created to promote equity amongst schools and achieve a certain balance between resource-abundant and resource-scarce schools, the actuality of how it played out is riddled with inconsistencies, leading the FSF to fall into a pool of ineffective schemes. Amongst many other causes, the simple fact that the current PTA system has been allowed to survive between the lines of the formula has ultimately rendered the Fair Student Funding formula incapable of truly realizing its said goals.

Though remedies to the inequalities that the PTA system upholds have been continuously avoided by the DoE and overshadowed by the voice of white affluent parents in New York City, there are solutions. The significance of the PTA and its power in schools has to not only be more recognized and spoken about, but must also be recorded and accounted for when addressing and constructing public school funding policies in general. As proven through the astounding annual funds raised in schools like P.S. 6 and P.S.87, money raised by the PTA can no longer be seen as small donations and unimportant. These funds can and have affected the educational experiences of students. Regulations must be in place in order to inspect where PTA money is coming from and how exactly it is being used.