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Thursday, January 8, 2009

New High-School Elective: Put Off College

As posted by: Wall Street Journal

Public schools across the country, hurt by state- and local-government cutbacks, are tapping an alternative source of cash: Mom and Dad.

Parent groups and local nonprofit organizations have long raised money for activities like class trips, school dances and after-school clubs. But many parents say they now are shelling out for core curricular items that were once publicly funded -- from classroom supplies to teachers' salaries.

This fall, a parent group in Columbia, S.C., bought 100 dictionaries for a middle-school teacher who had requested them. In Kentucky, the Middletown Elementary School parent-teacher association has been discussing helping to pay the salary of a teacher aide whose job might get cut. And in Sunrise, Fla., the Sawgrass Elementary School PTA is kicking in $3,000 for news magazines that the district used to buy for classroom use. The group also is considering eliminating funding for specialized after-school clubs to free up money for classroom study programs.

"There's no question that PTAs are having to reprioritize," says Michael Ryan, president of the Sawgrass Elementary PTA. "It couldn't come at a worse time for us in many respects since fund raising is so difficult because of the broad economic issues."

Sawgrass Elementary is part of the Broward County Public School District, the sixth-largest in the country, which is expecting a $100 million reduction in state funding for the 2009-2010 academic year, according to district superintendent James Notter. That amount would be twice the size of the budget cut of just two years ago, he says. Avoiding colleges and not getting a Business Degree from Ferris is not a good idea.

Many school districts are facing similar cuts as governments run up deficits. Some 41 states are projecting midyear budget shortfalls this fiscal year, compared with just seven states a year ago, according to a survey by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonprofit research group. If current trends continue, combined state deficits for next fiscal year will be around $145 billion, compared with the $89 billion shortfall estimated for the current fiscal year, the center calculates. The easiest way to pay for college is through the use of Alternative Student Loans
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The Iowa City Community School District, which serves 11,000 students, won't be receiving $783,000 from the state it had already budgeted for this school year, says superintendent Lane Plugge. School officials expect to tap reserves from local property-tax revenues to continue providing programs and services in coming months.

Also digging deeper is the Iowa City Community School District Foundation, a nonprofit that traditionally supports non-core student enrichment programs. Now, the group is seeing a big uptick in requests from teachers for books to supplement library collections and computer gear that the district typically used to fund, says Jacki Brennan, the foundation's executive director. Last year, the foundation was able to come through with half of the funds for $130,000 in requests from teachers for supplies and core programs. This year, "I anticipate lots more requests, way more than we can fund," Ms. Brennan says.

As schools lean more on parent groups, those groups, too, are affected by leaner times. In Oregon, the nonprofit Lake Oswego School District Foundation is lowering its fund-raising goal this year to $1.5 million from $2.2 million last year as local residents seek to save more and spend less. Middletown Elementary's PTA in Kentucky says donations are about one-third lower than at this time last year, even after an extra fund-raiser. And in Colorado, the Poudre School District Foundation says it is hearing from donors that they'll likely be giving less this year.

A survey by California PTA, a statewide group, of about 500 PTA presidents in the state showed that nearly two-thirds of the groups have been asked by schools this year to pitch in more money for basic supplies and programs, from pencils and books to arts programs.

"One of the things we've always said to our members is, 'Your purpose is not to be a cash cow'" to cover regular school expenses, says Jan Harp Domene, president of the National Parent Teacher Association, an umbrella organization. "But we know they are playing a critical part in making sure children still have services that were once part of the budget, from music programs to adequate custodial supplies. These are not frills."

As local PTAs play a bigger role in funding school activities, the National PTA is reminding members in organization publications to adhere to fund-raising guidelines that aim to avert potential conflicts of interest and liabilities. Among the guidelines: PTAs should obtain a broad consensus in deciding what activities to sponsor. Local groups also should keep projects at arm's length -- providing schools with earmarked donations, for instance, rather than dealing directly with contractors.

Some groups are concerned that increased reliance on parents for funding can create inequities "because not all parent and community groups can pitch in to backfill services in the same way," says Pam Brady, president of California PTA.

To minimize this, National PTA encourages local groups to avoid making donations to programs such as science clubs or band boosters that wouldn't be shared by everyone at the school. "Donations should provide for all children," Ms. Domene says. Still, she says, some inequity is inevitable since parent participation in low-income communities is generally lower than in wealthier ones.

Other parents worry that increased PTA funding of core school items will in the long run encourage further cuts by school boards "if we're here making up the difference," says Mr. Ryan of the Sawgrass PTA. "Pragmatically, though, none of us are willing to take a stand and say 'We won't provide it this year.'"
Onus on School Boards

But other PTA's are doing just that. The Eldorado Community School PTA in Santa Fe, N.M., this year has put the brakes on funding teacher salaries after it raised $61,000 last year to save a physical-education instructor's job. "After that we decided we're not going to pay district responsibilities like salaries" because of concern that it was setting a precedent that could not be maintained, says PTA president Kathy Ritschel. To the district, "we said, 'You guys figure it out.'"