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.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

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.

    This article relates to: Education, News, School Finances, School Foundations, Share

    Written by Mario Koran

    Mario is an investigative reporter focused on immigration, border and related criminal justice issues. Reach him directly at 619.325.0531, or by email:

    sjagitator subscriber

    I tried the charter school route but they fundraised their ass off!  They raised more money than the regular public school my daughter now goes to.  though there are some good charter schools out there don't fool yourself that that is the solution to school funding.  When we are 48th or 49th in state education funding nation wide we still have funds for prisons.  Until our priorities change it's going to keep getting worse.  $8 or $9K to educate and $65K to incarcerate... I'm working to reform the system but in the meantime I'm fundraising for my kids school!  No other option

    francesca subscriber

    Del Mar School District has it right.  Put all foundation money into one pot and divide it evenly among all of the schools.

    Those who donate still get their tax deduction.

    Michael Robertson
    Michael Robertson subscribermember

    There is no "inadequacy of state funding". Government schools get money from many, many sources and school foundations are one of them. If you add up all the sources CA spends $20,000 per year per student. Those sources include state funding, bond spending, federal spending, fees, foundations, pension programs, parcel taxes, builder fees and I'm sure there are others. Sum all that up and you're at around $20,000 per student. The average class size at SDUSD is 22 students (big classes are another myth) and you end up with more than $400,000 per classroom. That's a big number and far exceeds what the average private school spends, but that doesn't matter because there's no satisfying the voracious beast which is union driven education. 

    The reality is that government run education has an enormous propaganda machine always telling people that funding is too low. I wish VOSD would be independent thinkers and not carry their water. 

    It is true school foundations raise different sums of money, but so what? It's a tiny amount of the total funding pie. Poor schools qualify for grants. But ultimately the point is missed: THE PROBLEM WITH GOVERNMENT SCHOOLS IS NOT A MONEY PROBLEM. 

    No amount of money will improve education outcomes. Will teachers work harder if all their salaries were raised 10%? 20%? There isn't one study that shows more money equals higher achievements in education. 

    What we need is competition so the crappy teachers, administrators and schools get shutdown and replaced by better performers. Until that happens there will be no fundamental change. 

    Rick Smith
    Rick Smith subscriber

    @Michael Robertson "What we need is competition so the crappy teachers, administrators and schools get shutdown and replaced by better performers."  Please show a study that competition gets better results.  Teaching is difficult, that is why so few get into it, and why so many leave after a few years.

    Manny Chen
    Manny Chen subscriber

    @Michael Robertson "I wish VOSD would be independent thinkers and not carry their water. "

    VOSD shills for charter schools.  what would lead you to believe otherwise?

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    "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."

    No it won't. It was a bait and switch because that money will be used towards the increased exposure to the massive pension debts and the districts contributions. Governor Brown screwed the kids again while lying through his teeth.

    Tamara Hurley (educated Mom) points out the next part of it by pointing out the real focus of prop 2 on the ballot.

    Better get used to the idea of these parent organizations filling in the budget gaps in this manner. The districts will be pleading poverty soon enough.