Parents Are Going Beyond Bake Sales to Help Support Public Education

By Judy Molland

Funding Fundamentals
In Oregon, parents have been selling their blood plasma to keep teachers working. In Florida, they’re promoting “License for Learning” license plates to raise funds. In Massachusetts, the Lexington Education Foundation has been holding an annual trivia contest to raise money for teacher training and school computers, asking questions like: “Who said, ‘The only thing I do not want to be called is First Lady. It sounds like a horse.’?” (The answer, by the way, is Jacqueline Kennedy.)

Beyond Bake Sales...

  • Great Fund-Raisers

  • Tips for Successful School Fund-Raisers

  • “Would You Like to Buy …”: Kids and Fund-raising

  • The means may be unorthodox, but the end is universal – more money is needed to fund education on both the state and local levels. With federal, state and municipal budgets squeezed to the brink – and with equally strapped taxpayers unwilling to override local revenue limits to help schools meet their operating expenses – parents and education advocates are increasingly taking matters into their own hands.

    “The change has occurred over the last two years, ever since the stock market and the high-tech industry went bust, and the states found themselves in tremendous shortfalls,” says Arnold Fege, director of public engagement for the Public Education Network, an organization working to improve public schools. Overall, states have cut their budgets by about $65 billion, and Fege estimates that of that total, between $18 billion and $20 billion represent cuts in education.

    “Almost every public school district in the country is affected in some way,” he says.

    The result is that where parents were once raising money for the “extras,” they are now fund raising for the basics. P.S. 87 in Manhattan, N.Y., is typical of many schools: “We used to be paying for the frills, the non-essentials,” says Jean Joachim, a parent coordinator who has helped raise more than $200,000 a year at the school for the past decade. “Now the funds pay for items such as the librarian’s salary, half the salary of an administrator, a part-time science consultant, and paraprofessionals in all the kindergarten classes.”

    In some cases, parents are being asked for the first time to pay fees for school-bus transportation, after-school programs and school bands. In Oldham County, Ky., high-school students even pay a $4 rental fee per textbook!
    Great Fund-Raisers
    In response to the growing financial needs of their schools, parents are not only raising larger sums of money, but also becoming more innovative. Consider some of these ideas, which have become favorites at other school systems as well:

    Friday Night Pizza and a Movie – “On Friday nights in January, February and March, pizza is served at 6:30 p.m., and we show a kids’ movie in the auditorium at 7 p.m.,” explains Joachim, who is the author of Beyond the Bake Sale: The Ultimate Fund-Raising Book. “We charge $10 for pizza, a soda and the movie, and the cost covers security and the cost of renting the school. Students from third grade up are invited, and parents can stay with their children, or drop them off.” Profit: $4,000 in two and a half months.

    Handprint Tiles – At the elementary school on Anna Maria Island in Florida, parents came up with the idea of selling decorative tiles that kids and local businesses could personalize and hang on the walls of the school. “Each child in the school got to put her name and handprint on a tile, and we asked parents to pay $25 for it,” says parent Lynn Lott. Profit: $35,000 in less than a year.

    Before- and After-School Progams – When Joan Boone, president of the Parents Association at Sherman Oaks Elementary School in Los Angeles, realized that the YMCA was charging $300 a month per child for after-school care, and not giving anything back to the school, she saw a golden opportunity. “We took over the program, paid for a mom to get training, and got ourselves licensed,” she says. Now, all the money goes back to the school. Profit: $75,000 a year.

    Walkathons – Carla Greenberg of Marblehead, Mass., discovered that by organizing a walkathon, she could make a good deal of money without an excessive amount of work. “The most difficult part of this fund-raiser was adding up the money and making the deposit,” she says. The children solicited pledges of a certain amount per lap walked. They walked as many laps as they could and then collected their pledges. Profit: $6,500.

    Party Candles – At Red Bay High School in Red Bay, Ala., the school band calls their fund-raiser “Awesome!” They sold 10 oz. jar candles, hand poured, with an approximate burn time of 50 hours and a variety of fragrances. Doris Smith, a parent at the school, says, “This is great because you see profit immediately, and customers love these wonderful candles.” Profit: $1,480. (Return to Top)

    Foundations: The Way of the Future?

    Responding to huge budget cuts, many parents and schools have turned to setting up foundations – mainly to bring in the big money that other fund-raising initiatives cannot. With more than 16,000 school districts nationwide, and about 3,500 of them now having foundations, this has become one of the fastest-growing movements to raise money for public school education:

    • In Los Gatos, Calif., the education foundation raised $1 million through an aggressive “Save Our Schools” campaign to avoid teacher layoffs.

    • Boston Latin School, a Massachusetts public school for academically gifted youngsters, began a capital campaign in 1998, and has raised almost $40 million.

    • In Long Lake, Minn., the Orono Alliance for Education has raised $1.3 million to save teaching positions that were to be abolished.

    • The foundation in the Grapevine-Colleyville district, located just north of Dallas, Texas, has raised $250,000 and funded more than 100 projects, including paying the salaries of six teachers.
    Worries About Precedent, Pleasure with the Results

    While education advocates applaud the dedication and commitment of so many parents, they are also concerned about the level of fund raising today.

    “Having parents raise money to accomplish their goals is a great activity, but it’s not the role of the PTA to take over in this area because the state isn’t doing its job,” cautions David Cullen, director of legislation for the Florida state PTA. He worries that the more parents bear the burden of paying for public education, the less obligated policy-makers will feel to appropriate money for public schools.

    For National PTA President Linda Hodge the solution is simple: “We know parents are going to fund-raise because we all want to make sure our kids have the best that we can give them.” At the same time, Hodge says, parents also need to address the problem at its core by becoming advocates, organizing, going to school board meetings and addressing policy-makers to demand full funding for their schools.

    In spite of these concerns, it is clear that fund raising can have enormous advantages for a school. As Steven Plaut, the former principal of P.S. 87, explains, “Fund raising has been elevated to an art that connects students, families and staff. It’s a community builder that brings people together and provides vehicles for parents to be part of and contribute to their children’s education.”

    Parent-teacher relationships also stand to benefit. At many schools around the country, parents now have a fund to provide each teacher with extra money for classroom supplies. At Sherman Oaks Elementary School, each teacher receives $150 a year, and each grade level gets $1,000 to spend on whatever they want, courtesy of the Parents’ Association.

    Another positive outcome is that parents are coming together more: “Adversity unites parents,” says Fege, “as they understand that they can’t restore a teacher by themselves, but instead they have to organize.”

    For Joachim this sense of community is what it’s all about. “When you’re in the middle of doing stuff, it becomes fun and takes off, developing a life of its own. That’s what keeps events going.”

    “Why do we do it? We do it for our kids,” says Boone, echoing the feelings of parents around the country. “We want them to have the greatest education possible.”




    Beyond the Bake Sale, by Jean Joachim, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003. An excellent guide to fund raising, written by a parent who has helped raise more than $1 million in the past 10 years.
    Raising Funds for Your Child’s School, by Cynthia Francis Gensheimer, Walker & Co., 1993. Drawing on the experience of parents across the country, the author discusses more than 60 great ideas for school fund raising.


    • National  – Learn what parent-teacher associations are all about, how to get involved and the benefits of being involved with your child’s education and school.
    • National PTO    – This site, dedicated to parent-teacher organizations nationwide, also includes ideas for school fund raising.
    • National Scrip Center – 800-5388-1222,  – Offers schools discounted gift certificates for major retailers, and the schools sell them to parents for 100 percent of their value, retaining about 5 percent profit per certificate.
    • 888-456-1032,  – Parents can shop at a variety of retailers through this Web site, at the regular retail price. At the same time, they earn rebates for a designated school.

    Learn more

  • Tips for Successful School Fund-Raisers

  • “Would You Like to Buy …”: Kids and Fund-raising   

  • Judy Molland is the education editor for United Parenting Publications.