By Vivienne Pearson
There are lamington drives, and there are lamington extravaganzas. How much a school fundraises depends a lot on the tax bracket of its families. (Supplied: The Fundraising Directory)
There is another aspect of school funding inequality that does not receive the same attention as disparities in government funding for private versus public versus Catholic schools.
Perhaps it’s because we are used to it as an ever-present aspect of our education system.
I’m talking about fundraising. You may think that fundraising exists in order to even out inequalities in government funding but it is actually another conduit of inequality, including between public schools located in different socio-economic areas.
In public schools, fundraising is not about providing luxury items — swimming pools and theatres — that some private schools so readily enjoy. Parents and teachers actively fundraise for items that many would consider essential.
According to a survey by the P&C Federation, NSW’s peak body for Parent and Citizen Associations, fundraising is regularly used to cover the cost of home readers, basic IT equipment, air conditioners, playground seating and sunshades.
A 2017 Australian Education Union survey found that 83 per cent of schools use fundraising to add to their core budgets.
But not all fundraising is created equally.
Fundraising is easier in wealthy areas
A school’s ability to fundraise depends on the means of the parent body and the support that can be gained from external sources such as local businesses. That means it’s not a level playing field between schools.
In high socio-economic areas, fundraising can be an easy game. Parents are more likely to have the finances, time or expertise to boost fundraising. They’re more likely to be in a position to readily donate cash or valuable items, as well as be able to buy higher priced tickets to events such as trivia nights or fetes.
In wealthier circles, fundraising can become a game of one-upmanship, with parents enjoying out-biding others in auctions.
I’ve seen a painting by a preschool class “sold” for $1,000. That’s not an auction, that’s an excuse for a donation from someone who won’t miss a four-figure amount from their bank account.
In schools in wealthier areas, it’s common for a local real estate agent to donate the commission from a house sale as a “prize” that can be raffled off or sold via auction — a donation carrying a face value of $20,000-plus.
I applaud these families and businesses for supporting children’s education, but it needs to be acknowledged that such a level of donation is simply not possible everywhere.
Cakes stalls and sausage sizzles remain strong fundraisers for P&C groups throughout Queensland. (ABC Open: June Perkins)
BBQs or cake stalls don’t cut it
Compare these scenarios to a school in a low-to-medium socio-economic area. Parents may be less able to donate funds after paying all the other costs associated with public education: “voluntary” fees, subject levies, excursion costs and uniforms.
Local businesses are less likely to be able to donate so generously. Parents are stuck fundraising with low-return-for-effort fundraisers like barbeques or cake stalls, maybe only fetching a couple of hundred dollars from many hours of voluntary labour.
Public schools are underfunded for even their basic needs. The difference in the capacity of schools to fundraise only serves to further widen the gap.
I am not suggesting that parents should not be involved in schools. Engagement is crucial: parents should have say in school planning and be encouraged to get involved in classrooms, on excursions and in arranging social events.
But schools relying on parents using their skills, labour, energy and time to raise funds for essential elements for their child’s education is not reasonable in a first-world economy.
And it is not just parents who are fundraising. Teachers also participate in fundraising and AEU’s survey found that over half of teachers surveyed spend more than $500 of their own money each year on classroom basics (with 10 per cent spending over $2,000).
Let parents focus on things money can’t buy
The message from both the P&C Federation and AEU is simple and one that parents, once they have a moment to look up from their raffle ticket selling, will cheer.
“Reliance on fundraising for essentials shows our public schools are not getting the support they need.” — Meredith Pearce (ABC News: Mary Lloyd)
“Fundraising shouldn’t be required to provide essential education services,” says P&C Federation President, Susie Boyd.
“Reliance on fundraising for essentials shows our public schools are not getting the support they need,” echoes Meredith Pearce, president of the AEU in Victoria.
The solution, of course, is to raise (and equalise) school funding so that fundraising is no longer required to fund essential items.
And by essential, I mean not just items needed for maths and English resources, but tools for robotics, coding, dance and sport, as well as play equipment and other outdoor spaces that are so essential for child development.
If schools stop needing parents for money, they can get involved on a deeper level: strengthening community, increasing cohesiveness, and having fun — the important things in life that money can’t buy.
Vivienne Pearson is a freelance writer.