The parents at Maury Elementary (1250 Constitution Ave. NE) have taken on a lot of responsibility to support their neighborhood school.
The Capitol Hill school’s Parent Teacher Association (PTA) pays for five teaching assistants in the upper grades as well as supplies ranging from laptops and cleaning materials to paper and even toilet seats. They also organize community-building events and provide added support services, like free childcare at all PTA meetings, to make it easier for parents to participate.
To do this, they organize a number of fundraising activities throughout the year, including a spring auction and gala. The auction, which is responsible for the bulk of the PTA’s fundraising dollars, receives significant contributions from local small businesses and sponsors. In 2019, the PTAs gross receipts were $238,730; about 75 percent of those funds pay for the teaching assistants.
The size of contributions by Maury’s parents and the role its PTA plays in school funding, however, is not the norm in the District. A Capital Community News examination of online Internal Revenue Service (IRS) filings for DCPS elementary schools filed in 2018 and 2019 found that the Maury PTA is one of only 14 parent school organizations that raised more than $125,000.
The highest earning parent organizations are overwhelmingly centered in the Northwest quadrant of the District and on Capitol Hill, meaning these supplemental amounts are unevenly distributed throughout the District in ways that mirror other neighborhood disparities.
“One of the gaps we don’t talk about in education is the parent group resource gap,” said former Washington Lawyer’s Committee (WLC) Parent Empowerment Program (PEP) Coordinator Jhonna A. Turner. Fundraising is one way that gap is manifested.
It is also one that, unintentionally, results in increased inequity in the system.
Parent teacher organizations, or PTOs, the general term used here, are groups of parents and, in some cases, school staff and community members who meet regularly to support school goals and the interests of students, teachers, and parents. These organizations put on events, encourage engagement at the school and advocate for school needs. And many of them are private fundraising organizations.
Some of these organizations regularly raise significant amounts of money that is directed towards school operations. For instance, Key Elementary, in Georgetown, reported gross receipts of $908,466 in 2019; in Tenleytown, Janney Elementary reported $842,954; Horace Mann in Cathedral Heights indicated receipts totaling $594,453 in 2018. Representatives from these PTOs either did not respond to emails or declined to comment on this story.
But the PTOs that are fundraising hundreds of thousands of dollars are a small segment of the overall number of schools. While 45 of the 70 DC Public Schools serving elementary students had registered as 501 (c) (3) nonprofits, indicating they were prepared to undertake significant fundraising efforts on behalf of the schools, only 20 filed forms indicating gross receipts greater than $50,000. Of the 29 elementary schools in wards 7 and 8, only 9 were registered with the IRS.
To be clear, if a school does not have an organization registered with the IRS, it doesn’t mean they didn’t have a PTO. It just means they were unlikely to be planning on fundraising $50,000 or more, the threshold at which a nonprofit must file a return. Only one school in those two wards, Van Ness, which was recently redistricted from Ward 6 to 8, indicated receipts more than $50,000; four others filed “postcard” returns, indicating revenues less than $50,000.
These additional, privately-raised funds can make a discernible difference to learning. According to a 2013 DC Education Adequacy Study, the highest-performing DCPS and public charter schools spent about 6.7 percent more per-student than they received through the system’s budget formula. Successful schools’ expenditures, the authors conclude, are likely financed through additional funding beyond the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula UPSFF, including federal program support as well as privately raised dollars, like those raised by PTOs.
Shavanna Miller is co-President of Maury’s PTA [disclosure: the author serves as Maury PTA Secretary]. Miller says she joined the PTA because she saw the impact of its work on the school and its students. She was also motivated by last year’s school budget that saw Maury drop to the lowest level of per-pupil funding of all 118 DCPS schools.
Miller, a mother of three and full-time CEO of a community-building technology company, says the PTA is work, but rewarding. She says Maury is fortunate to have nearly a hundred volunteers and to have financial support from parents and the wider community, including local businesses.
In part, the PTA is working to bridge resource needs in the school community, she said. “Maury is a diverse school,” Miller said, noting that about 44 percent of students are non-white and 10 percent are categorized as “At-Risk” by DCPS. For comparison, Key, Janney, and Horace Mann ES have less than two percent of students categorized At-Risk.
Maury received 20 percent less funding per pupil than the average DC school this year and Miller says the additional teacher aides help teachers and students get the support they need.
Maury PTA has been funding the five teaching assistants for the past ten years. They are not the only school to pay staff; Mann supplies support teachers in nearly every classroom. In 2019, Ross Elementary PTA (Dupont Circle) funded a full-time Spanish teacher, and parents at Hearst Elementary (North Cleveland Pak) funded specialists in reading, math and special education.
After ten years, support staff are part of the fabric of Maury and make important contributions, Miller noted. “We could stop fundraising to support those positions,” Miller acknowledged, “but it would have a negative impact on student experience and I truly believe we would lose teachers if they weren’t there.”
Miller says it would be preferable if DCPS was providing these types of funds for all the schools in the District, noting that even if DCPS provided $200,000 to every one of the 115 schools in its system —an amount near the median of the highest earning PTOs — that would be $23 million, or only about 2 percent of the total $1.16 billion DCPS budget.
“We know we’re lucky to be able to do this,” Miller adds. “It would be better if the city prioritized additional staff at all schools through regular funding and through the regular unionized staffing systems – it’s obvious more staff are needed in schools and should be available to all kids in DC,” she said.
DCPS did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.
Not A Priority
Fundraising among families simply cannot be a priority for some schools. PTO President for Ward 7 school John Houston Elementary Burnice Cain said that was an ask the organization was reluctant to make.
Instead, Houston’s PTO focuses on building connections with the community that benefit the school. These often lead to in-kind donations, such as soccer balls and backpacks, from local civic organizations and businesses.
It’s a difference of philosophy, Cain said. “You don’t want communities that are already marginalized financially to feel like they’re obligated to participate in a way that might put some strain [on them],” Cain told Capital Community News last year, noting that many school families have suffered economic challenges due to COVID.
The District does not provide funding for individual parent organizations, she noted. “So it’s almost like, if you want something extra or important, you have to have the funds for it,” she said.
Wards 7 and 8 are home to the greatest portion of the District’s school-aged children: 31.5 percent aged 5 to 17. In 2002, the median household income in Ward 7 was $50,130; it was $44,665 in Ward 8. The median in Ward 3 and 6, home to the bulk of the high-fundraising schools, was three times as high coming in at $155,813 and $128,791, respectively.
Many of the parents at Houston are working class, Cain said, with two or three jobs, making deeper school engagement more challenging. “If you have two or three kids, two or three jobs, you’re going to be like, I got my kids from point A to point B; I have success.”
But the lack of funds affects PTA participation as well, she added. In 2019, Cain set out to
increase participation. A solution she considered was providing childcare at PTO meetings. However, fundraising to do that appeared prohibitive.
“I’m sure I would get double the participation,” Cain said, “but where do I have funds for that?”
Nonprofit fundraising is a particular skillset, more easily found among advantaged parents. In 2019, Turner, the former PEP Coordinator, worked to help parents at Ward 8’s Ketcham Elementary organize a PTO, get their by-laws in order and understand systemic issues. She said although they were not fundraising huge amounts prior to 2019, parents at the school were already involved.
“The difference was both a wealth and knowledge gap,” Turner said. “They were very much volunteering, supporting and wanting all the best things for their children — they just didn’t have the resources to get there and really just the financial literacy and social capital to move the needle forward.”
Together with parents, Turner came to the conclusion that what Ketcham needed was “more friends.” So, they founded the Friends of Ketcham Elementary as a 501 (c) (3) in 2019 to send the message that people in the community could sign up to support the school.
The organization’s board is made up of a mix of community members, residents, parents, teachers, administration and church representations. All are Black and all have a stake and a perspective on education in the community.
Drawing on the wider community, they raised $100,000 over their first three years, funding a new security system, laptops, furniture, teacher professional development in New York and special education programs. Turner, who left WLC in 2021, remains on the board of the Friends of Ketcham today.
Wanting the Best
At its most basic level, parent engagement is consistently associated with positive educational outcomes. More resourced neighborhoods are better able to facilitate that engagement, perpetuating inequities that already exist throughout the District.
But parent leaders are working to support their schools, the students and the faculty. They see themselves as advocates in the community working to fill gaps between the school and
“It is very clear that all parents, no matter their race, no matter their background, they want the same thing for their child,” said Turner. “It’s just the power to get it.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly named Amidon Bowen as the school that filed a return with the IRS and was redistricted into Ward 8. That school is Van Ness. MidCity DC News regrets the error and apologizes to the Van Ness and Amidon Bowen communities for the mix-up.