It was dark and rainy in most of Seattle.
But inside a glittering event space, hundreds of middle-aged, mostly-white Madison Park residents were dressed for summer: Men in bright seersucker suits and saddle shoes. Women in sherbet-colored silk dresses and matching hats with plumage.
Party-goers at this Kentucky Derby-themed auction clinked mint juleps, and waved paddles for luxury ski vacations and weekend getaways to Napa. "Wow! A 6,500-square-foot estate!" the tuxedoed auctioneer called out. "Six bedrooms! Six bedrooms!"
This is how the McGilvra Elementary School PTA raised much of the $422,000 it made last year. That money pays for reading and math specialists, art and music teachers.
"You're either in a good school district, which, thankfully, we are, and a good school, [where] parents can hopefully fund some of these things, or you end up going to a private school," said Tamara Suess, a parent at McGilvra. "So it’s a fine line I think we’re walking at our school.”
Suess wants her kids to be in the public school system. Ideally, she said, they could take foreign language, too. "Because more and more, we’re competing with private schools, and if we don’t offer a lot of the things that private schools offer, then we lose students and potential money."
Private school flight is not a concern across town in South Park, where Gladis Clemente is vice-president of the Concord Elementary PTA.
"We have very low-income people in our school, so we don't raise as much money as other schools. I know that there are some schools that raise $100,000, but we don't, unfortunately," Clemente said.
Two-thirds of Concord students are Latino – many, Mexican immigrants like Clemente’s family. Most of the rest are black or Asian.
Many schools with similar demographics don’t even have a PTA.
At Concord, Clemente said, the PTA was hoping to hold a fundraising party this month. But they weren’t sure whether they’d be able to recoup the hundreds of dollars it would cost for an event license and permit. "So it’s really kind of hard, tricky and frustrating. But we have to find the ways to raise money. Because if we don’t, nobody else is going to do it."
This year, Seattle’s wealthiest – and whitest – elementary school PTAs gave the district more than $4.5 million to pay for extra teachers and other staff at their schools. Meanwhile, the 20 elementary schools with the highest percentage of students of color could afford no such grants.
This disparity is spurring a discussion that could change the way PTAs in Seattle do business — and bring more money to low-income schools.
Vivian van Gelder is co-organizing The PTSA Equity Project, a small group of Seattle Public School parents who want to start a citywide conversation about PTA resource-sharing between schools: volunteer hours as well as revenue. They plan to hold community meetings in early 2018 at libraries across town.
Van Gelder is also vice president of the PTA at Montlake Elementary, one of the wealthiest in the district. Gelder says when she joined the PTA, she was shocked to discover how much money her school could use to pay for extra teachers each year and still have money left over. She said that highlights the inequities in this school system that’s so racially — and socioeconomically — segregated.
"I think the problem is that a lot of parents are limited to thinking of their community as their school, their child's school," van Gelder said. "It's like, how do we get people to say that our community is all of the schools in our district. All the kids in our district."
Van Gelder’s group would like Seattle to look at revenue-sharing models like the one Portland uses.
In 1994, facing a school funding crisis, the Portland school board made it possible for parents to fund staff positions, with a caveat. In order to buy teachers, money is deposited into a special school foundation. After the first $10,000, one-third of the foundation money goes into an equity fund that’s redistributed to lower-income schools. This year, the equity fund gave out nearly a million dollars in grants.
Portland Council PTA President Lisa Kensel said the Parent Equity Fund gets a lot of attention and is well-intentioned. "Our school actually received an equity grant. So we were a recipient of foundation dollars," Kensel said. But she added that the money is spread so thinly that the maximum grant is $40,000 - not nearly enough to pay for a full-time teacher.
"We were always appreciative of the amount that we received through equity funds grants, but it really could not compete with what a school three miles from our house was able to do and give their students. And it just it didn't feel fair to me," Kensel said.
"That's a big problem, and that is something that we're definitely cognizant of," van Gelder said.
Portland’s system has other important lessons for Seattle, van Gelder said, like giving evidence that requiring parents at wealthier schools to share some of their donations with poorer schools would not, as some fear, send families fleeing to private schools. "I think the experience in Portland shows that that’s not necessarily the case," van Gelder said.
It’s not just van Gelder’s group that’s been talking about PTAs sharing the wealth. It’s being discussed by the Seattle School Board, and Director Stephan Blanford said that while it's not something he'd like the board to suggest, they’re open to hearing proposals from the public.
"The biggest challenge in my mind is that we don't want to kill the golden goose. But you also don't want to have inequitable outcomes continue in the way that they are," Blanford said.
Even with all of the extra funding that goes to low-income schools to narrow the opportunity gap, Blanford said that allowing wealthy schools unfettered access to extra teachers only widens the gaps between rich and poor, black and white.
I emailed two-dozen PTA officers at high-grossing schools to ask their thoughts on PTA revenue-sharing.
One who did reply said he was receptive to the idea.
Another said that, like some well-off schools, hers voluntarily supports low-income schools. But she supports an opt-in model rather than something mandatory.
Some parents fear that requiring revenue-sharing would have a chilling effect on donations — a concern Blanford doesn’t really share. "I think if it were well-communicated, and there were a big conversation amongst policymakers and stakeholders, it actually could result in more contributions."
One thing everyone I spoke to agrees on is that PTAs should not be in the position of having to make sure schools have what they need to teach kids.
Some say this issue is a distraction from forcing the Legislature to fulfill its constitutional obligation to “amply fund” K-12 education.
Vivian van Gelder disagrees. "If you talk about the dollar sums involved, it's a tiny percentage of the entire school district budget. But symbolically, it's huge. And it's a really easy way for parents to grasp the ongoing effects of segregation in our school district."
Even with full funding of schools, van Gelder said, that segregation would always mean that some schools, including her family's, remain bastions of privilege.
Correction, 1:36 p.m., 11/29/2017: In Portland, the school board created an avenue for parents to raise money for teacher positions via 501(c)(3) organizations. School communities can, without PTA involvement, fund local school foundations. An earlier version of this story misstated the mechanism by which fundraising for teachers occurs.