Chicago’s Ninth-Grade Focus Triggers Climb in High School Graduation Rates

From The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research
April 24, 2014unnamed
Efforts to improve the academic performance of ninth-graders drove large improvements in graduation rates three years later in a diverse set of 20 Chicago public high schools, according to a report released Thursday by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research (UChicago CCSR). This suggests that the recent dramatic improvement in the percentage of Chicago ninth-graders who are “on track” to graduate should continue to propel system-wide graduation rates in Chicago Public Schools (CPS).
A second report released today by UChicago CCSR helps explain why ninth grade is such a key leverage point for reducing dropouts.
In 2007, CPS launched a major effort, centered on keeping more ninth-graders on track to graduation. Freshmen are considered on track if they have enough credits to be promoted to tenth grade and have earned no more than one semester F in a core course. The effort was a response to research from UChicago CCSR showing that students who end their ninth-grade year on track are almost four times more likely to graduate from high school than those who are off track.
The district initiative promoted the use of data to monitor students’ level of dropout risk throughout the ninth-grade year, allowing teachers to intervene before students fell too far behind. The diversity of strategies was notable—from calls home when students missed a class to algebra tutoring to homework help. The goal was to match the intervention to the specific needs of the student and prevent the dramatic decline in grades and attendance that most CPS students experience when they transition to high school.  Since that time, the CPS on-track rate has risen 25 percentage points, from 57 to 82 percent.
The first report, Preventable Failure: Improvements in Long-Term Outcomes when High Schools Focused on the Ninth Grade Year, shows that improvements in ninth grade on-track rates were sustained in tenth and eleventh grade and followed by a large increase in graduation rates. This analysis was done on 20 “early mover schools” that showed large gains in on-track rates as early as the 2007-08 and 2008-09 school years, allowing for enough time to have elapsed to analyze how the increase in on-track rates affected graduation rates.
“On its face this did not seem like an initiative that would produce a system shift in performance, redefine approaches to school dropout, and call into question the conventional wisdom that urban neighborhood high schools could not make radical improvements.  And yet, CPS’s focus on on-track achieved all of this,” said report author Melissa Roderick, Hermon Dunlap Smith Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago and a senior director at UChicago CCSR.
Other Key findings from Preventable Failure
Between 2007-08 and 2012-13, system-wide improvements in ninth-grade on-track rates were dramatic, sustained, and observed across a wide range of high schools and among critical subgroups—by race, by gender, and across achievement levels.  Although all students appeared to gain, the benefits of getting on track were greatest for students with the lowest incoming skills. Students with eighth-grade Explore scores less than 12—the bottom quartile of CPS students—had a 24.5 percentage point increase in their on-track rates.  On-track rates improved more among African American males than among any other racial/ethnic gender subgroup, rising from 43 percent in 2005 to 71 percent in 2013.
Improvements in on-track were accompanied by across-the-board improvements in grades. Grades improved at all ends of the achievement spectrum, with large increases both in the percentage of students getting Bs and the percentage of students receiving no Fs. Thus, evidence suggests that on-track improvement was driven by real improvement in achievement, not just a result of teachers giving students grades of “D” instead of “F.”
Increasing ninth-grade on-track rates did not negatively affect high schools’ average ACT scores—despite the fact that many more students with weaker incoming skills made it to junior year to take the test. ACT scores remained very close to what they were before on-track rates improved, which means that the average growth from Explore to ACT remained the same or increased, even though more students—including many students with weaker incoming skills—were taking the ACT.
Key Findings on how to support students during the ninth-grade year from Free to Fail or On-Track to College
Free to Fail or On-Track to College, the second report released by UChicago CCSR, details the dramatic drop in grades, attendance, and academic behavior that occurs between eighth and ninth grade and demonstrates how intense monitoring and support can help schools keep more ninth-graders on track to graduation.
Both high- and low-achieving students struggle when they enter high school.
Between eighth and ninth grade, average grades drop by more than half a letter grade (0.6 points on a 4-point scale). This decline happens across all performance levels. Even among students with very high GPAs in eighth grade, only about one-third maintain a high GPA in ninth grade.
Grades decline because students’ attendance and study habits plummet across the transition to high school—not because the work is harder.
Students miss almost three times as many days of school in ninth grade as in eighth grade, and this increase is primarily driven by a significant increase in unexcused absences. Freshmen also report putting in less effort than they had in seventh and eighth grade. Furthermore, students do not perceive ninth-grade classes as more difficult than their eighth-grade classes.
Adult monitoring and support can prevent the declines that typically happen across the transition from high school.
Interviews with students revealed a significant shift in adult supervision between eighth and ninth grade, which makes it easier for students to skip class and stop doing work. But school and teacher practices can make a difference in the course grades ninth-graders receive, even among students with similar prior performance.
“Taken together, these two studies show that ninth grade is a pivotal year that provides a unique intervention point for reducing high school dropout,” said Elaine Allensworth, Lewis-Sebring Director of UChicago CCSR. “Schools truly can prevent course failure and high school dropout, particularly if they provide students with the rights supports at the right time.”
Both the Preventable Failure and the Free to Fail reports can be found on the UChicago CCSR website.

Keeping ninth-graders ‘on track’ raises graduation rate: University of Chicago study

BY LAUREN FITZPATRICK, Education Reporter
April 23, 2014 10:02PM

Less than half of students at Benito Juarez Community Academy High School graduated in 2008 when Juan Carlos Ocon took over as principal, but by 2013, he said, the rate rose to about 69 percent.

The secret of Juarez’s success — and the success of 19 other neighborhood high schools in Chicago in getting more students to graduation day — started with the school’s ninth-graders and keeping them “on track,” according to new research to be released Thursday by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School research.

Shepherding ninth-graders through their first year of high school — focusing on helping them to show up to class and complete their work so they pass their courses — leads to jumps in graduation rates, even at high schools once thought of as “dropout factories,” according to the study.

“Attention to those very small things has a big payoff,” said Elaine Allensworth, who directs the Consortium, adding that schools need to intervene as soon as freshmen show a dip in attendance or decline in effort.

The interventions that have worked so far are less expensive and dramatic than a schoolwide turnaround or conversion to a charter school, she said. The gains spanned gender and race but were highest for African-American males.

And outside factors beyond a school’s control — gangs, family, academic weakness of incoming freshmen — affect graduation in a common way by preventing students from showing up and doing their work, she said.

“Schools don’t have to change everything in kids lives — what they have to do is make sure all those other factors don’t interfere with kids coming to class and getting their work done,” Allensworth said.

The authors tracked efforts across 20 Chicago Public Schools that boosted “on-track” rates for ninth-graders over three years by poring over real-time data on a regular basis and then looked at who graduated. According to their findings, those “on track” increases — to 82 percent in 2013 from 57 percent in 2007 — translated into big jumps in graduation rates, up to 20 percentage points.

“On track” means a student has enough credits at the end of the year to go on to the next grade and has earned no more than one semester F in a core class.

The 20 schools adopted a variety of practices, including block scheduling to minimize the effects of tardiness; hiring an “on-track coordinator” to reach out with solutions when students started to fall off; and running a summer program for incoming freshmen.

How the schools specifically chose to keep tabs on their ninth-graders mattered less than how well they kept them on track, said Thomas Kelley-Kemple, a Consortium author.

Juarez, with 96 percent low-income students, leaned on its lead teachers and changed its curriculum to one that focuses on standards instead of specific content.

“It automatically made what was being taught in the classroom more relevant to the students,” Ocon said. That pushed attendance up, too, he said.

“What’s in the classroom now is much more relevant and that’s bringing them back every day,” he said. “Because the curriculum has shifted, it’s not what teachers are interested in, it’s what students need.”

Juarez also opened a “benchmark achievement center” in the library, where students can bolster skills after school, Ocon said.

Juarez still has work to do, with ACT scores barely above a 16 average — below the CPS average of 17.6 and far below 21, considered to be “college ready.” The school also is in its last year of a $6 million state improvement grant that Ocon said bolstered its efforts.

How Illinois’ Flawed Funding System Shortchanges Chicago’s Students

From ThinkProgress.org
By Pat Garofalo, posted on Sep 12, 2012

Chicago’s public school teachers remained on strike for a third day today. But as ThinkProgress reported yesterday, even when Chicago schools are in session, students have to deal with a host of should-be-embarrassing problems, including crumbling buildings, lack of art and physical education classes, and an abysmally short school day. (Chicago’s elementary school day is so short that some students are given just 10 minutes for lunch in order to cram in all the necessary instruction.)

These problems stem in large part from Illinois’ education funding system, which is one of, if not the most, inequitable in the nation. Illinois schools rely even more heavily on property taxes than the standard U.S. school district, which, as the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability noted, “ties the quality of the public education a school can give a child to the wealth of the community in which that child lives.”

Huge proportions of Chicago students come from low-income households, so the property tax base from which the schools are funded is not high. The Chicago Reporter outlined some of the practical consequences of this system:

– Due to the primary reliance on local property tax revenue for school funding, there are massive cumulative gaps in per-pupil spending, particularly in poor or minority communities. The 6,413 students who started elementary school in Evanston [a suburb north of Chicago] in 1994 and graduated from high school in 2007 had about $290 million more spent on their education than the same number of Chicago Public Schools students.

– Many of the school districts that spent the most per-student received at least 90 percent of their money from local property taxes. Yet, these districts tended to tax themselves at far lower rates than their poorer counterparts.

– The percentage of state contribution to school funding has decreased four of the last five years and is one of the lowest in the nation.

Illinois is also generally terrible at funding education, ranking 40th in per-capital education spending, despite being 15th in per-capita income. And the disproportionate lack of funding for low-income areas, particularly within cities, manifests itself in several ways. Besides the obvious lack of resources for students, wealthier districts can attract better teachers and pay for better safety measures.

As one Chicago school teacher wrote, “How can the discrepancy be so wide in school funding? The answer is simple; Gage Park [where she taught] is a violent, gang-­‐ridden neighborhood where the houses are very cheap. The worth of the properties will never rise due to the extreme violence in the neighborhood. Also, most of the living spaces are rented – there just aren’t that many people that own homes. Therefore, property taxes are low, virtually non-­‐existent.” By some estimates, it would take about $1.9 billion to bring Chicago’s students up to level at which they were meeting state standards.

CFE Demands Action to Restore NY School Funding to Constitutional Level

December 4, 2012

On November 27, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a project of Education Law Center, sent a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature detailing the history of school finance since passage of the Foundation Aid Formula in 2007. Noting that in recent years the formula has been underfunded by $5.5 billion, the letter states that NY schoolchildren, especially those with the greatest need, are being denied critical educational resources. Below are excerpts from the letter, read the full letter here.

On behalf of New York’s schoolchildren, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (“CFE”) writes to bring to your attention a matter of paramount concern. We understand the State faces many challenges, but none is more important than safeguarding the future of our children. The reality is that today in New York State that future is in peril because our children’s basic educational needs are not being met. As we explain, the State’s underfunding of our public schools is so severe that it amounts to a violation of its constitutional obligation to provide New York’s children with adequate educational resources.

In the landmark CFE decision, New York’s highest court defined a constitutionally “sound basic education” as “a meaningful high school education, one which prepares [students] to function productively as civic participants.”

The Court of Appeals found that State underfunding of New York City Schools resulted in a severe deprivation of critical resources, including certified teachers, reasonable class size, and textbooks, technology and other instrumentalities of learning.

In 2007 the Governor and the Legislature…enacted a statewide school funding remedy to fulfill that constitutional obligation. The new finance system, the Foundation Aid Formula (“2007 Formula”), established a relationship between state aid, the needs of students, and district ability to raise revenue. The Formula was designed to shift the allocation of school aid from political maneuvering to a system responsive to student need and district wealth.

Despite this historic action, the State has defaulted on its constitutional commitment to implement the CFE remedy through the 2007 Formula. In the first two years, the Legislature provided installments of Foundation Aid, totaling $2.3 billion. However, in 2009, aid was frozen at 37.5% of the four-year target, and then cut by 2.7 billion in 2010 and 2011 through the Gap Elimination Adjustment. The GEA was regressive by imposing larger cuts in higher need school districts, resulting in a widening of the resource gap with students in wealthy districts. These cuts were further exacerbated by the highly restrictive Tax Cap Levy enacted in 2011.

Moreover, the Governor and the Legislature adopted a budget maneuver designed to prevent full funding of the 2007 Formula: the Personal Income Growth Index (PIGI) Cap commonly referred to as the cap on state school aid. This cap has the effect of relegating moderate and high need districts to long term underfunding, thereby ensuring that compliance with the constitutional obligations of CFE for students in those districts will never be fulfilled.

At the same time, student need is growing. The Children’s Defense Fund reports that 21% of New York State’s children live in poverty, with 10.1 % living in extreme poverty, a notable increase from 2008. In New York City, a startling 25.8% of children live in poverty, up from 22.9% in 2008. Heightened poverty means more children come to school needing additional educational and social services, thus intensifying the economic burden on school districts. New state and federal mandates only add to the fiscal stress.

The failure to fund the 2007 Formula is depriving students of resources vital to achievement. A new White House report noted that in New York City, the number of elementary students in classes of 30 or more has tripled in the last three years. Thirty-one percent [of districts] reduced summer school and reduced or deferred instructional technology. Districts cut their workforce by an average of 3.9% this year, on top of 4.9% in 2011-12.

It is now plainly evident that our school districts are in a financial and educational crisis. Their outlook for the near future is dire. Forty-one percent of districts forecast financial insolvency within four years and a vast majority, 77%, foresee educational insolvency within the same timeframe. Thus, in just a few years, districts will be unable to fulfill federal and state mandates for instruction and student services.

Even more alarming, the current legislative framework prevents full funding of the 2007 Formula until at least 16 years from now, in 2028. Thus, two more generations of New York children will pass through our schools before the State even begins to approach meeting its constitutional obligation to adequately fund its public schools through implementation of the CFE remedy.

It is incumbent, therefore, that the Foundation Aid under the 2007 Formula be restored, and that the Formula be put back on a four-year cycle to phase-in full funding. We urge you to bring New York State into compliance with the state constitution by making fulfillment of the CFE remedy a top priority for the upcoming budget and legislative session. This priority is not only necessary to reverse the educationally destructive trends of the past three years, but to ensure State fulfillment of its constitutional obligations to New York school children.

Press Contact:

Sharon Krengel
Policy and Outreach Director
skrengel@edlawcenter.org
973-624-1815, x 24

Secretary Duncan: Keep Charters Out of the Muck, Please

July 09, 2009

by Gordon MacInnes

Secretary Arne Duncan used his speech before the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools to spotlight the “bottom 5%” of America’s public schools. Numbering about 5,000, Duncan urged the charter school community to consider taking on some of these schools and turn them around. He was clear that not every charter school operator is up to this challenge, naming a few multiple-site groups like KIPP and Green Dot as possible candidates.

Wrong audience. Bad idea.

If my analysis of New Jersey’s worst-performing schools is any guide, then Secretary Duncan’s plea should be ignored. Expecting charter schools to suddenly operate as turn-around specialists in the nation’s toughest schools is akin to asking the school nurse to perform a liver transplant.

To define the “bottom 5%,” I used the mean scale scores from the 2008 state assessment of 3rd grade language arts. The mean scale score provides a precise number for each of 781 NJ schools in which the 3rd grade test was given. I selected the 39 schools with lowest scale scores for review. Not surprisingly, most of them were near the bottom on the same test in 2004. The 3rd grade literacy test is the threshold test, since kids who do not read at grade level by then have only a 14% chance of ever reading at level. An elementary school that does not teach its students to read and write well is not meeting its primary responsibility.

Here are the findings that prompt my conclusion that little in the experience of charter school innovators prepares them for operating a public school, even if in the same neighborhood.

1.  The 5% schools are expected to educate kids who are different from those enrolled in charter schools. By definition, charter students have parents that sought a better education for their children. There is no way to quantify this trait, but it is a powerful advantage for charters.

2.  The 5% schools must accept every child, even if they speak no English or have been classified “disabled.” Charter schools in NJ’s five big cities (Elizabeth, the fourth largest, has no charter schools) have a 8.1% special education rate compared to a state average of 16% and a city average of 17.0%. Just as importantly, charter schools are likely to have only mildly disabled students as evidenced by the fact that only five of 34 urban charter schools provide separate special education classes. Just about every 5% school does. The charter schools like KIPP, North Star, and Robert Treat Academy that have the financial, organizational, leadership, and educational talent to be considered for turn-around roles, have classification rates of 8.9%, 7.0%, and 3.2% respectively.

3.  NJ charter schools have been largely immune from the wave of Latinization that has swept over their district colleagues. Latinos are now the largest minority, but not in charter schools where 71% of their students are African-American. Only eight of thirty four urban charters report any English Learners (and none more than 7.8%), while the 5% schools show English Learners making up as much as 37% of school enrollment. The average for the district schools is 6.6% versus a charter average of .5 of 1%.

4.  The high-performing charter schools—the ones that Secretary Duncan would favor to take over struggling district schools—enjoy a stable student population. The 5% schools do not. When student mobility rates are averaged over three years, the charter schools with the highest test results and the longest waiting lists, have practically no student turnover. The mobility rates for Robert Treat (2.5%), North Star (9.3%), TEAM (3.6%), Gray (9.3%), and the Learning Community (3.3%) are noticeably below the state average of 11.5. However, the mobility rate in Newark’s eight 5% schools averages 25.8%, in Paterson’s four 26.5%, and 20.8% in Trenton’s five.

5.  There is no clean slate. Secretary Duncan acknowledged that charter schools are start-ups, not turn-arounds. The difference is profound. There are no tenured teachers and, usually, no union in a charter school. There is no downtown headquarters to issue endless memos and demand reports. Even with these advantages, most charter schools do not perform better than district schools serving like populations.
The one shared characteristic of district and charter school students is their poverty. In fact, charter school students in the five largest NJ cities are slightly more likely to be eligible for free or reduced lunch (73.8% to 66.8%) than district students.

Secretary Duncan’s appeal ignores the central role that is frequently played by the district central office in the performance of individual schools. Of the 39 5% NJ schools, 31 are in Camden (10), Newark (8), Trenton (5), Paterson and Jersey City (4 each). Four are charter schools. Equally poverty-stricken districts like Elizabeth and Union City, not only have no charter schools, but their students regularly perform close to the state average on literacy assessments. These successful districts rely, not on searching out the hero principals Secretary Duncan invokes, but by working closely with teachers and principals to improve classroom pedagogy. And, they emphasize the connection between high-quality preschool and the primary grades with an intensive focus on early literacy.

The persistence and spirit of enterprise required to open and operate a high-performing charter school are to be admired and replicated as often as possible. Secretary Duncan is right to hail the achievements of effective charter schools. However, the experience of attracting students from families seeking better educational opportunities, whose children are free of serious impairments, and who command the English language is entirely different from turning around a failing school in the poorest neighborhoods in the nation. Secretary Duncan did not under-estimate the difficulty of the objective, only the experience and capacity of charter schools to meet the test.

Gordon MacInnes served as Assistant Commissioner in the NJ Department of Education from 2002 to 2007, directing efforts to improve performance in hign needs urban districts utilizing the remedies ordered in the landmark Abbott v. Burke case. He now lectures at Princeton University and does research and writing for the Century Foundation in New York.

Press Release: CPS Fails To Negotiate Fair Contract To Prevent First Strike In 25 Years

Ed07-CTU Stands Strong Rally-CTU Sea of Red ma...

Ed07-CTU Stands Strong Rally-CTU Sea of Red marching through loop to meet Stand Up Chicago Rally (Photo credit: sierraromeo [sarah-ji])

from Chicago Teachers Union
http://www.ctunet.com
09/09/2012

More than 29,000 teachers and education professionals will not report to work today 9/10

CHICAGO— After hours of intense negotiations, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) have failed to reach an agreement that will prevent the first teachers strike in 25 years. Pickets are expected to begin Monday at 675 schools and the Board of Education as early as 6:30 a.m. Teachers, paraprofessionals and school clinicians have been without a labor agreement since June of this year.

Union leaders expressed disappointment in the District’s refusal to concede on issues involving compensation, job security and resources for their students. CTU President Karen Lewis said, “Negotiations have been intense but productive, however we have failed to reach an agreement that will prevent a labor strike. This is a difficult decision and one we hoped we could avoid. Throughout these negotiations have I remained hopeful but determined. We must do things differently in this city if we are to provide our students with the education they so rightfully deserve.

“Talks have been productive in many areas. We have successfully won concessions for nursing mothers and have put more than 500 of our members back to work. We have restored some of the art, music, world language, technology and physical education classes to many of our students. The Board also agreed that we will now have textbooks on the first day of school rather than have our students and teachers wait up to six weeks before receiving instructional materials.

“Recognizing the Board’s fiscal woes, we are not far apart on compensation. However, we are apart on benefits. We want to maintain the existing health benefits.

“Another concern is evaluation procedures. After the initial phase-in of the new evaluation system it could result in 6,000 teachers (or nearly 30 percent of our members) being discharged within one or two years. This is unacceptable. We are also concerned that too much of the new evaluations will be based on students’ standardized test scores. This is no way to measure the effectiveness of an educator. Further there are too many factors beyond our control which impact how well some students perform on standardized tests such as poverty, exposure to violence, homelessness, hunger and other social issues beyond our control.

“We want job security. Despite a new curriculum and new, stringent evaluation system, CPS proposes no increase (or even decreases) in teacher training. This is notable because our Union through our Quest Center is at the forefront teacher professional development in Illinois. We have been lauded by the District and our colleagues across the country for our extensive teacher training programs that helped emerging teachers strengthen their craft and increased the number of nationally board certified educators.

“We are demanding a reasonable timetable for the installation of air-conditioning in student classrooms–a sweltering, 98-degree classroom is not a productive learning environment for children. This type of environment is unacceptable for our members and all school personnel. A lack of climate control is unacceptable to our parents.

“As we continue to bargain in good faith, we stand in solidarity with parents, clergy and community-based organizations who are advocating for smaller class sizes, a better school day and an elected school board. Class size matters. It matters to parents. In the third largest school district in Illinois there are only 350 social workers—putting their caseloads at nearly 1,000 students each. We join them in their call for more social workers, counselors, audio/visual and hearing technicians and school nurses. Our children are exposed to unprecedented levels of neighborhood violence and other social issues, so the fight for wraparound services is critically important to all of us. Our members will continue to support this ground swell of parent activism and grassroots engagement on these issues. And we hope the Board will not shut these voices out.

“While new Illinois law prohibits us from striking over the recall of laid-off teachers and compensation for a longer school year, we do not intend to sign an agreement until these matters are addressed.

“Again, we are committed to staying at the table until a contract is place. However, in the morning no CTU member will be inside our schools. We will walk the picket lines. We will talk to parents. We will talk to clergy. We will talk to the community. We will talk to anyone who will listen—we demand a fair contract today, we demand a fair contract now. And, until there is one in place that our members accept, we will on the line.

“We stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters throughout the state and country who are currently bargaining for their own fair contracts. We stand with those who have already declared they too are prepared to strike, in the best interests of their students.”

“This announcement is made now so our parents and community are empowered with this knowledge and will know that schools will not open on tomorrow. Please seek alternative care for your children. And, we ask all of you to join us in our education justice fight—for a fair contract—and call on the mayor and CEO Brizard to settle this matter now. Thank you.”

###

The union is not on strike over matters governed exclusively by IELRA Section 4.5 and 12(b).

The Chicago Teachers Union represents 30,000 teachers and educational support personnel working in the Chicago Public Schools, and by extension, the more than 400,000 students and families they serve. The CTU is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers and the Illinois Federation of Teachers and is the third largest teachers local in the United States and the largest local union in Illinois. For more information please visit CTU’s website at http://www.ctunet.com .

Parent Fundraising Deepens Inequality in the New Public School Economy

colorlines / By Julianne Hing

credit: istockphoto

June 27, 2012 | Who can afford to set aside enlisting their schoolchildren to hawk gift wrap for school fundraisers so parents can bring in over a $1 million through school PTAs? Parents at tony public schools on New York City’s Upper West Side, is who. That set of schools and their powerful parent fundraising arms became the subject of some debate earlier this month when the New York Times detailed the fundraising activities, and major cash hauls, of several public schools in New York City which have been able to supplement standard public school offerings with computers, chefs and fitness coaches, field trips, desks and projectors.

The conversation reignited a decades old debate about persistent educational inequities and the role parents play in their children’s schools. With public school budgets facing continual cuts, individual communities face even more pressure to help sustain their neighborhood schools. Parents in wealthy neighborhoods can afford to backfill those shortfalls but parents in poorer neighborhoods, some of whom are just scraping by themselves, can’t always dip into their own pockets to help furnish their schools with extra amenities or even the bare basics. In today’s public school economy, it’s still the case that the quality of the education students get depends on what their parents can pay for.

“It’s very disheartening that there are parents out there doing their very best to keep food on the table and lights and heat on in the house and are therefore unable to provide additional financial support to their schools, and because of that, their students don’t get what they need to get a fair opportunity to learn,” said Tina Dove, the director of the Opportunity to Learn Campaign, a progressive school reform campaign run by the Schott Foundation.

Parents’ fundraising power falls along bright class and race lines, and some worry that power fundraising can further institutionalize the already gnawing gap between the haves and the have nots, especially as schools look to their parent groups and independent school foundations to fund the sorts of school programs that are seen as extraneous in a testing-driven public school system. School districts across the country have long been locked in discussions about how to share the wealth that wealthy parents can bring in—some school districts mandate that a portion of the money parents raise at individual schools be shared among students across the district. Earlier this year New York City schools chief Dennis Walcott defended power parent fundraising, and said he had no interest in discouraging parent giving, the New York Times reported.

“We will have groups that are extremely adept in raising money and those that may not have the existing type of connections or the local businesses that may not be able to do that,” Walcott said. “I don’t want to penalize those that have the ability to raise money to support their schools.”

“If anything, I want to support schools that may not have that capacity for a host of different reasons,” Walcott said. Walcott supports New York City’s schools foundation, designed in part to help meet the needs of low-income schools. Yet even their many and generous $10,000 and $20,000 grants for upgrading library and arts spaces can’t match what wealthy schools can bring in. It’s a reflection not just of fundraising ability, but also parents’ social and political capital.

The fact remains that as states slash their annual school budgets, schools depend more and more on private giving, and parents are responding in kind. According to the Urban Institute’s National Center for Charitable Institutions, between 1997 and 2007 the number of nonprofit groups dedicated to supporting public education doubled to more than 19,000. As of 2007, those groups had raised $4.3 billion, Education Week reported. And while the $1.5 million annual fundraising from some wealthy New York City schools is outsized against other, more typical school fundraising.

The solution won’t come in cracking down on or trying to reign in powerful parent fundraisers, say even those who advocate for students in poorer communities.

“It brings the equity conversation to the forefront,” said Zakiyah Ansari, a parent and education activist with Alliance for Quality Education, a progressive community-based education organizing group in New York. “The fact that some communities don’t have to worry about their schools because they can raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for two art teachers, I don’t have a problem with that.”

“But meanwhile there’s kids in the South Bronx or East New York and other areas of the city where there’s not even one art teacher and fundraising for that is not even an option—that’s where we need to be focusing.”

In the neighborhoods where need is the greatest, AQE can’t look to parents to open their wallets as a way to give their kids the best education they can, Ansari said. Organizers have to focus on leveraging parent power in different ways, and toward different ends. Ansari said that AQE has organized parents to address educational inequities, and that a big part of their work was to pressure Albany to look at funding schools adequately.

“One of the things I want people of color and parents to know is: you don’t have to accept this,” she said. “I’ve been guilty of this myself. When you see budget cuts happening, we know which community is going to cut first. You innately know it’s going to be a District 9, 23, 19 that’s going to get hit the hardest.”

“Part of the thing to address inequity is educating parents to know that there are parts of the city raising $1 million for their schools. And it’s not about saying that’s not fair. It’s about saying: why isn’t the city, why isn’t the state funding our schools.”