When my eldest daughter began kindergarten five years ago at our excellent school in downtown Toronto, fundraising demands were a constant onslaught. There were pizza days, magazine and cookie dough sales, bake sales, a dance-a-thon and a silent auction. There were fundraisers to fund the fundraisers. School fundraising became my favourite thing to rail against—for putting demands on families and for undermining the principles of public education—but when I finally got around to joining our school’s parent council, I realized that matters were much more complicated than they seemed.
What had seemed to me like a barrage of fundraising requests was actually a series of initiatives carefully selected to fund (on a shoestring) many specific programs. Scrap the magazine sale and say goodbye to new classroom literacy materials. The dance-a-thon came about one year when the board had no funding for new computers. This year, an enterprising parent organized the sale of school-branded hoodies to finance the replacement of decades-old gym mats. These campaigns—and the parent volunteers who run them—are filling a massive gap in education funding, and teachers and students have come to count on them. (These campaigns—and the parent volunteers who run them—are also part of the reason why I consider our school “excellent.”)
Many parents are unabashed in viewing fundraising as a simple solution to the decades-long problem of underfunded education in the province and even lament restrictions on what these funds are permitted to pay for. (Ontario’s Ministry of Education doesn’t allow for them to be used for infrastructure, such as replacing windows and installing new heating systems.)
But others think fundraising furthers inequities among students and communities. According to People for Education, the top five percent of fundraising secondary schools in Ontario raise as much as the bottom 83 percent combined. Their recent report on fundraising and fees in Ontario schools shows that a “competency gap” between students from high and low socio-economic backgrounds is only by a lack of resources at schools whose higher rates of poverty limit the possibilities of in-school fundraising. These parents are also concerned that every time families step up to supplement public education, it sends a message to the provincial government that they don’t have to cover these costs.
“Publicly funded education should cover all costs necessary to address anything that arises,” explains Tiffany Ford, a school trustee for York West on the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). “But, in reality, it has been 20 years since the amalgamation of the Toronto school boards and, still, inadequate funding by the province persists.”
Part of the problem, according to a March 2018 study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, is the formula created by Ontario’s PC government in 1997 to fund education the same way across the province. Previously, school boards had access to funds from their municipal tax base. The former model gave the TDSB an advantage, but the school board became worse off after 1997, with the problem of underfunding intensified by the higher costs of infrastructure in an urban centre. And it’s not just Toronto; schools across the province are also struggling.
Karen Green has spent nearly a decade on parent councils and in school politics, both in Toronto and Chatham, Ontario, where she has tried to keep two priorities in mind. “First of all, what are we fundraising for? Let’s aim for something that will improve the school days of as many children as possible. Secondly, let’s try to make our fundraising a community engagement event.” These are events like pasta dinners and rummage sales that actually get the community into the school, which is hugely important in tearing down walls that keep parents from being engaged.
But school fundraising isn’t the only way for parents to engage or the only solution to the problems of underfunding. “As parents, we ought to do anything we can do to improve the learning environments for our children,” says Krista Wylie, a Toronto parent and co-founder of the grassroots advocacy group Fix Our Schools. “I don’t judge parents raising money at the school level for things like playgrounds and arts enrichment programs.” However, Wylie hopes these parents and parent councils also leave some room for political engagement, especially since, she emphasizes, it doesn’t take much to shift the conversation.
Fix Our Schools was born before the 2014 Ontario provincial election, when a group of parents around Wylie’s dining room table pledged to engage political canvassers about school disrepair. As a result, school disrepair was mentioned in one candidate’s subsequent mail-out.
Since then, all three provincial parties have recognized the issue. In June 2016, the government pledged to invest $1.4 billion every year to reduce a $15 billion backlog in school repairs across the province. “Now that’s too little too late,” Wylie points out. “We still need to do more.”
Leading up to the provincial election this June, Fix Our Schools will be running campaigns that engage MPPs and candidates to pledge adequate funding for school maintenance. “We want parents to be asking at the door when anybody comes canvassing,” says Wylie. “The more that social media is engaged and peer groups are vocal, the better.”
Green also suggests that parents be open to expressing their concerns. “I think you need to advocate change at the level where change can happen,” says Green. “Attend parent council meetings or at least speak to a parent council member.”
Advocating for our own children is an opportunity to advocate for everyone. “I would encourage parents to speak up and advocate for all communities, especially those who are consistently neglected,” says Ford.
And so, this spring, as I administer our school’s artwork campaign to raise money for classroom supplies, I’ll also be calling on my MPP candidates via social media to take the Fix Our Schools pledge. “Real equity and fairness for all students in our system is when all students have access to the same resources,” explains Ford.