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As schools open for the fall, the Washington Post ran an article about the unevenness of parent fundraising for schools in Montgomery County—the prosperous county of “super zips” with especially well-educated and prosperous denizens—that borders the District of Columbia to the north.

Here’s the dilemma of uneven funding:

The $110,000 video scoreboard at Damascus High School, the $80,000 electronic scoreboard at Winston Churchill High and the million-dollar turf field at Thomas S. Wootton High all have something in common.

They’re expensive and extravagant, yes. But perhaps more important, the upgrades at the Montgomery County public schools weren’t funded with taxpayer dollars, instead arriving via private donations and parent fundraising.

Booster clubs and parent-teacher associations have long been important sources of funding for schools, paying for items such as playground equipment, field lighting and other amenities that public money might not otherwise buy. But in Montgomery, one of the most affluent counties in the United States, officials are concerned that private fundraising for such public improvements is widening economic disparities in the community.

They are reviewing donation policies in the hopes of leveling the playing field.

The thrust of the Washington Post analysis is that there is a more-or-less direct correlation between the socioeconomic status of parents and the “extras” kids get, and so kids with the wealthiest parents will get the most “extras” and kids with the poorest parents will get the least. County policy, however, requires that booster-club or PTA funding not “foster or exacerbate inequality.”

It’s hard to understand how the county could fully ensure parents’ fundraising efforts didn’t lead to any inequalities—and the best solution might be for parents to wake up to the fact that a $110,000 video scoreboard is simply a tasteless indulgence of teenage vanity.

Nevertheless, Montgomery County officials are considering ways to level the disparities in funding for “extras” by policy fiat, as by requiring all schools to pool booster-club and PTA funds so that they can be “equitably” redistributed among all schools or by encouraging wealthy schools to adopt “sister schools.”

There’s a patronizing air to these proposals. But what’s more, the premise behind these policies—that there is a simple ratio between the socioeconomic status of parents and parent-provided extras—isn’t quite right.  There’s no simple translation between parents’ status and what extras they bring to the school—in fact, principals can significantly influence what parents do for a school. I learned this as we enrolled our son in three different schools, in three different school districts, and with three very different principals, in the last three years.

Our son’s first school was in Maryland’s Anne Arundel County and served a challenging mix of students from middle-class neighborhoods and a public housing project. The principal, who was then starting her second year, met with parents of incoming students and laid out her three goals for improving the school. As the year unfolded, it was evident that those goals were being vigorously pursued, and it was easy to approach the principal—she was outside greeting parents and students in the morning and after school, and an email to her received a prompt response. Some parents and PTA members quibbled on the details of policy, but there was an enthusiastic sense of partnership between parents and the school, a clear idea of how fundraising and PTA activities fit into the plan to improve the school, and an active parent community that supported the school through volunteer hours and fundraising activities.

His second school was in Princeton, New Jersey, and enrolled many Princeton University faculty children as well as others from tony Princeton neighborhoods. Most parents were highly educated and extremely invested in their children’s education, and many had flexible academic work schedules that make volunteering during school hours easy—the science fair committee, for example, was headed by a Princeton University physicist! The principal was new to the school and her office door was generally closed—but it almost didn’t matter. You could hardly walk in the school’s front door without running into PTA leaders and there were many parent-led clubs and activities, along with frequent fund-raising events.

His third school was in Maryland’s Montgomery County—the county featured in the Washington Post article—and served a mix of middle-class and poorer neighborhoods; quite a few kids spoke English as their second language. A PTA led by a few dedicated parents valiantly offered a few special events, but PTA leaders described their frustrations in working with the longtime principal, and we heard complaints about obstacles to establishing after-school activities (there were no after-school clubs). My husband and I had conversations with the principal about various issues and never left with the impression that our concerns had been truly understood. The school was not the only reason we moved once again this summer, but it certainly one of the main reasons.

So, there are schools like the one our son attended in Princeton where the parents’ social capital is so great that you don’t need an inspiring principal to bring about a huge and effective parent effort. But, in other schools, the principal makes an enormous difference to what parents contribute: the difference between the active and enthusiastic parent community at our son’s Anne Arundel County school and the community at his Montgomery County school—schools that are quite similar in many respects—could largely attributed to the difference between a principal who worked effectively with parents and a principal who just didn’t.

School and county officials concerned about inequalities between schools couldn’t do better than to put excellent principals in schools with less-wealthy populations—for lots of reasons, but among them that such principals can partner with parents to bring out the best in the community.

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