Over the past several months, I’ve been doing research into the fundraising practices of parent teacher organizations (PTOs) in Washington, D.C. My interest in PTO fundraising was first piqued years ago when my step-mom was working on the PTO at my little brother’s public school, Oyster-Adams. She told me about a woman she’d met who was the president of another D.C. public school PTO: this woman was responsible for signing paychecks for six staff members the PTO had hired to supplement the staff provided by the D.C. public school system. This struck me as odd. I was struck by the amount of money it would take to hire six additional staff members (though I do not know if they were full- or part-time), and I wondered how an all-volunteer body, the PTO, could be responsible for hiring, supervising, and paying public school staff. It seemed complicated. It also seemed like the practice could exacerbate existing inequities across D.C. public schools. Only some public schools have parents with the resources to raise the large amounts of money necessary to hire additional staff. Where does that leave children in other schools, with a less wealthy, less connected parent base?
There’s been a been a lot of talk in recent years about the privatization of public schools. Concern about privatization has only increased with the election of Trump as president and his appointment of Betsy DeVos, an opponent of public schools, as secretary of the Department of Education. But what I’m interested in here cannot exactly be termed privatization per se. Parents who join PTOs at their children’s public schools, who serve on committees and raise money for those schools, are working to support a public school. Parents — especially parents of means, who could make the choice to send their children to private schools — are proud of their commitment to public education. Their PTO work improves the school for all children, not just their own. But an examination of this work at the scale of the school system raises some important questions about disparities and equity. This issue has been getting some attention recently: see this April 2017 story from the New York Times, PTA Gift for Someone Else's Child? A Touchy Subject in California, and this April 2017 report from the Center for American Progress, Hidden Money: The Outsized Role of Parent Contributions in School Finance. The CAP report includes a particular focus on Washington, D.C.
My research at this point is based on an examination of IRS tax filings of the PTOs in Washington, D.C. that have filed as 501(c)3 tax-exempt organizations. Since I am interested in the PTOs that raise significant funds, and 501(c)3 tax-exempt status is necessary in order to raise funds at a significant level, I’m limiting my analysis to PTOs with this tax status. I’ve looked most closely at the filings that cover the 2014-15 school year, which is the most recent data available. I’ve also examined the demographics of the public schools served by these PTOs.
I’m a geographer, and I think mapping data can be a good way to analyze phenomena and raise questions. I’ve therefore made a series of four maps that, I hope, give some geographic context to D.C. PTO fundraising. Please note that all these maps are in draft form, and should not be regarded as final documents. I’m continuing to work on them, and I’m also working on a paper that gets into much more detail about these matters, including detail about how funds are raised and spent. I’d appreciate any questions or comments on these maps and this research.
The above map shows, with yellow circles of varying sizes, the locations of the D.C. public elementary schools with PTOs that are registered with the IRS as 501(c)3 tax-exempt organizations. This map also shows, with black dots, the locations of the city’s public elementary schools that do not have PTOs registered with the IRS as 501(c)3 entities. The latter set of schools may very well have active PTOs: but the fact that they are not registered with the IRS indicates that they are not raising significant sums of money. My analysis focuses only on the 39 501(c)3 PTOs that serve public elementary schools. There are also three 501(c)3 PTOs that serve public charter schools; three that serve public high schools; and four that serve public middle schools; these are not included on the map.
Please note that this map shows total PTO revenues generated by school, not per pupil revenues, though mapping per pupil revenues reveals similar patterns. Please note too that, at some schools, total revenues include fees parents pay to the PTO in order to allow their children to participate in after-school activities, which are organized by the PTO. This fee-for-service model represents a somewhat different dynamic than more straightforward fundraising.
The above map shows PTO revenues for 2014-15, together with median household income for 2015. Here, we can see that the PTOs that raise the most funds are located in the highest income areas of Washington, D.C. This should not come as a surprise.
The above map shows PTO revenues for 2014-15, median household income for 2015, and the location of all the federally-subsidized housing in Washington, D.C., together with public elementary school attendance zones (all public elementary schools but one give attendance priority to students from their surrounding attendance zones).
A glance at the location of federally-subsidized housing immediately reveals striking patterns. Only 6 of the 337 subsidized properties, for example, are located west of Rock Creek Park, historically the city’s wealthiest and whitest area. However, the data as mapped hides some important facts: one, the number of units contained within each of these properties; two, the number of bedrooms in these units, which would indicate whether they are suitable for families with children; and three, whether or not these properties are designed solely for senior citizens. Of the 6 properties located west of Rock Creek Park, two are large buildings just for senior citizens; one is a 15-unit property of just one-bedrooms; one is a 26-unit property, also of just one-bedrooms; and the two remaining properties have a total of nine units, of unknown size. (Please note that this map does not include any housing subsidized solely by local D.C. dollars. The phrase "federally-subsidized housing" also does not include housing subsidized by the federal mortgage interest tax deduction, which is far and away the largest housing subsidy provided by the federal government.)
Public elementary schools with high-performing PTOs tend to have large percentages of students that come from “in-boundary” — that is, children who live within the school’s surrounding attendance zone. For the 2015-16 school year, the highest in-boundary rate for these schools was 93%. The fact that housing costs tend to be highest in these areas, together with the paucity of subsidized housing located within these attendance zones, means that these schools are more likely to serve children from the higher-income families that can afford to live nearby.
The above map shows the location of schools with 501(c)3 PTOs, color-coded by the year the PTO incorporated as a tax-exempt entity with the IRS. PTOs serving schools in upper Northwest and Capitol Hill, for the most part, incorporated earlier than PTOs serving other schools. About half of the city’s PTOs have incorporated very recently, between 2014 and 2016. This raises some questions about the shifting culture of PTOs and public school communities as gentrification moves through neighborhoods, which has been the subject of some interesting recent research.