Erin Ploss-Campoamor surveyed the block in front of her children’s school, looking for friendly faces — and feeling a pang of anxiety.
Ploss-Campoamor was camped out on the sidewalk in front of Micheltorena Street Elementary, just off of Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake neighborhood. Two fellow officers of the school’s booster club were there too, ready to do business: collect checks, hand out “thank-you” prizes, sell some merch.
It was March 12, 2021, two weeks into a month-long fundraiser for the school’s booster group, “Friends of Micheltorena.”
The parents had set out to raise $45,000.
So far, they’d collected… $14,000 — and after a half-hour on the streets, under gloomy Friday afternoon skies, only one other dad had shown up.
“Do you think I should post and say we’re here?” Ploss-Campoamor, the booster club’s co-president, worried aloud. A few minutes later, a callout on the group’s Instagram account announced, in English and Spanish, “WE’RE HERE NOW!!!”
In late February, the booster club parents had taken a leap of faith: They promised to pay to keep Micheltorena’s assistant principal on staff next school year.
And yet there they were: two weeks out from Spring Break, some $30,000 short.
“I’m hoping it’s just that people are distracted and overwhelmed and procrastinating,” Ploss-Campoamor said, “and they’re all going to rally at the end and pony up the money we need to raise.”
How Much Money Do Parents Raise?
You might assume that in a public school, the government pays for the assistant principal.
Or for the gym teacher. Or for the science lab instructor. Or to stock the library, fix school copy machines, supply SMART Boards and projectors for classrooms, provide music classes and art programs.
But in affluent or gentrifying areas of the Los Angeles Unified School District, parent fundraising organizations — like parent-teacher associations and school booster clubs — often cover such costs.
Since 2016, parents across L.A. Unified have reliably raised at least $30 million each year through non-profit organizations that support academics at their schools. That’s according to a database KPCC/LAist built out of more than 1,700 records these groups filed with the federal Internal Revenue Service and with state officials.
We’re publishing that database now so that you can search for your school and compare your fundraising totals to others in your neighborhood or across the district.
Here are some of the findings from the database we compiled:
- In 2018-19, PTAs and booster clubs at LAUSD schools brought in more than $36.9 million in revenues. Compared to LAUSD’s annual $9 billion operating budget, that’s not that much money. But most parent fundraising revenues are concentrated in a relative handful of schools — and in those schools, cash from the PTA or booster club can be game-changing.
- Though we’ve identified 348 parent organizations raising money on 302 LAUSD campuses — some schools have more than one group — parents on the 50 highest-fundraising campuses alone generated more than $26.4 million in 2018-19. Put that another way: two-thirds of LAUSD’s parent fundraising happens on just 6% of LAUSD’s campuses — mostly in wealthy westside neighborhoods or the southwestern San Fernando Valley. (Our map illustrates exactly where.)
- In an overwhelmingly Latino school district, LAUSD schools with larger populations of white students tend to raise more. Enrollment in schools where parents annually raise less than $100 per student is nearly 80% Latino and 6% white. By comparison, schools bringing in more than $100 per student are 33% Latino and 40% white.
Our analysis has limitations. Tax filings from the year 2020 are still being processed, so the most recent school year with the most complete fundraising data available is 2018-19. (Even if more recent data was available, the COVID-19 pandemic might skew it.)
Parents at independent charter schools also fundraise, but because some donate directly to their school instead of a separate non-profit, parent contributions can be harder to track. (Other researchers have also run into this problem.) Therefore, we excluded independent charters from our database — though we do include "affiliated" charters, which are essentially run as LAUSD schools.
What we did find, however, points back to a question that drove us to undertake this project: are parents in LAUSD’s whitest and wealthiest enclaves pooling money to purchase an education inaccessible to most of the school district, where the vast majority of students come from less-affluent households?
It’s a provocative, important question, but our data suggest this isn’t only a simple story of haves versus have-nots.
Whether they realize it or not, a diverse range of constituencies in Los Angeles — from school district leaders to property owners to parents themselves — rely on PTA and booster club fundraising to make California’s $80 billion school funding system workable in their communities.
As a result, parents at schools like Micheltorena have little choice but to fundraise — and critics say it’s harder to address the underlying inequities in the funding system.
To understand why, take a closer look at California’s school funding formula. It’s a lot of complex math wrapped around a simple goal: the more high-need students a school serves, the more funding that school should receive to educate them. To address those needs, schools must offer more complex services, which cost more money.
Yet our data illustrate how parent fundraising can complicate state- and district-level efforts to progressively fund schools.
In School Funding, Parents Tip The Scales
California funds schools per student.
The state pays roughly the same “base” amount per student, but the state also pays extra for each low-income student, English learner or foster child. That label applies to more than 80% of LAUSD’s 447,000 K-12 students.
On top of that, LAUSD schools where most students are low-income get extra federal money, too, through a program called Title I.
Here's how it looks at elementary schools, for example.
Now, look at how that funding system works in LAUSD schools serving students from different socioeconomic backgrounds.
The vast majority of LAUSD students attend low-income, high-need schools, so LAUSD directs a lot of money to these schools to meet these students’ complex needs.
Meanwhile, schools in higher-income areas get less need-based funding.
Now, watch what happens when you add parent fundraising to this mix.
The average LAUSD school doesn’t spend much money, if any, raised by parents — but in the three dozen or so LAUSD elementary schools serving the richest neighborhoods, parent fundraising makes a huge difference.
These wealthy LAUSD schools receive, on average, roughly 85% of the total funding that a low-income, high-need school receives: around $1,200 less per student in 2018-19.
With fundraising, parents in these schools closed this gap to around $300 per child, on average, according to our analysis.
Parents in these 34 most-affluent LAUSD elementaries donate an average of $876 per student, our analysis shows. Many booster clubs ask for $1,000 or more — per kid, per year.
Parent groups in these schools have every incentive to ask. Most parents have every incentive to give: $1,000 per year may not be cheap, but it’s not as steep a price as private school.
“I don’t blame schools for fundraising aggressively,” LAUSD school board President Kelly Gonez said in an interview, “especially where they feel like some basic needs may not be met just with the funding provided from state, local and federal sources.”
The View From The Top
Money doesn’t solve all the problems a school faces — especially in high-need schools.
The average high-need school has a tougher time attracting the best staff. Need-based funding often comes with strings attached. Principals are still forced into tough judgment calls, like between hiring a nurse or a social worker when their school needs both.
I would not be as troubled by [parent fundraising] if the state were already meeting the needs of those poorer school[s]
Despite pumping billions of new dollars into K-12 schools over the last decade, California’s education spending levels still rank in the middle of the pack among U.S. states. The totals are even more underwhelming when weighed against the state’s vast wealth: the Education Law Center found that (pre-pandemic) California spent only 2.88% of the state’s GDP on public education — the 8th-worst mark in the nation.
“I would not be as troubled by [parent fundraising] if the state were already meeting the needs of those poorer school[s],” said Preston Green, a professor at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education.
“I don’t think California is adequately funding their K-12 system,” said Oscar Jiménez-Castellanos, a visiting scholar at the USC Rossier School of Education. “We should talk about the distribution in the largest district — but if the system isn’t funded adequately then really, all of these schools are shortchanged.”
Parent fundraising poses a quandary for LAUSD school leaders. Many LAUSD board members have pushed the district to tie even more funding to measures of student need — and they acknowledge parent fundraising undercuts that equity work.
But they acknowledge this only to an extent. On balance, LAUSD board members interviewed for this story felt that, for now, the district should try to measure the extent of parent fundraising, rather than constrain it, limit it or redistribute revenues.
“This is an imperfect system,” said board member Nick Melvoin, who represents the high-fundraising Westside.
However, “I think we’ve landed at an equilibrium that works for many people,” Melvoin added, “because it enables the district to distribute resources based on need” while also keeping high-income parents from fleeing for private schools or charters — a tuition-free alternative to public schools.
If the arrangement works well for LAUSD’s wealthiest three dozen schools, there are just as many campuses in mixed-income or gentrifying neighborhoods where this “equilibrium” puts extra pressure on parents to fundraise.
These are LAUSD schools where fewer than 50% of students qualify as low-income. That makes them ineligible to receive funds from the federal need-based program called Title I. These schools also qualify for fewer need-based state dollars.
In these schools, parents often feel government funding pays for too little — and if they want extra staff, programs or services at their school, they have few alternatives but to turn to fundraising.
That’s what parents at Micheltorena Elementary in Silver Lake have done.
Almost half of Micheltorena students “cannot pay full price for lunch,” noted Erin Ploss-Campoamor, the school’s booster club president. “We still have to find money somehow.”
“When those federal dollars go away,” she said, “if you don’t have a really wealthy demographic in that school to make up for those federal dollars — in other words, rich families that can fundraise — you’re stuck in a bind. We’re really at the crossroads of that.”
New Families On The Block
In 2007, the parents at Micheltorena Elementary wanted a new playground structure and needed a legal entity to accept the grant.
The name of that entity: Friends of Micheltorena.
They had little idea of the existential threats that would begin circling the school in the years to come.
The Great Recession triggered draconian budget cuts in schools across California. Gentrification pushed families who’d been most loyal to Micheltorena for decades — working-class Latinos — out of Silver Lake. As these families left, enrollment spiraled downward; there was so much under-used space at Micheltorena that a competing charter school moved onto the campus in 2012.
That year marked a turning point. Micheltorena launched a number of efforts to attract new families to the school; most crucially, the principal launched a Spanish-language dual language program, and it worked. Since then, enrollment has rebounded — mostly because of an influx of white students from more-affluent backgrounds.
The demographic change was striking. In 2007, Micheltorena’s enrollment was 1% white. By 2015, white students made up one-quarter of the student population.
These new parents had expectations about the sorts of programs a public school should offer. Expectations turned into a wish list: a more user-friendly school website, a school library, a new community garden, more field trips, camping trips to Catalina Island, after-school programs that could be free for everyone — including for lower-income students who couldn’t afford the fees.
As the new parents’ wish list grew, so did their fundraising ambitions. The school had a more traditional PTA group, but a booster club gave the parents more freedom to spend the funds as they chose. Over time, Friends of Micheltorena became the school’s primary — and then only — fundraising group.
Especially at first, some items on this wish list struck many of Micheltorena’s longtime families, many of them Latino, as strange: Who needs a website to know this is a lovely school? What was wrong with our old PTA, whose school supply drives and bake sales were a source of joy? These parents worried whether they'd fit in at a Micheltorena where more-affluent, and often white, newcomers held more sway.
As parent fundraising efforts ramped up, Micheltorena’s changing face began to alter the school’s financial outlook in another way.
Title I provides extra funding to meet the needs of low-income students. Though Title I (pronounced “Title One”) is a federal program, LAUSD decides how to share the money with schools. To qualify, an LAUSD school’s student population must be at least 50% low-income.
LAUSD principals use Title I funds to “purchase” a wide range of staff positions. Among the most common hires: teacher assistants, instructional coaches, counselors, administrators and even additional teachers.
There are limits on how principals can spend Title I dollars. Federal law says this money is meant to pay for extras, not core services or basic programs. Additionally, the principal must present a plan for spending these dollars to the “school site council,” and the council — made up of parents, community members, classroom teachers and sometimes students — must approve that plan.
Just a few years earlier, 87% of Micheltorena students had been considered low-income. This entitled Micheltorena to extra federal funding (remember: Title I). At Micheltorena, this money had helped pay for a staff member to coordinate programs for high-need students. It also covered a part-time aide for the school’s library.
By 2018-19, though, only 49.5% of Micheltorena’s students were low-income — just below the 50% eligibility threshold. At the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, the Title I funding ended.
This was Micheltorena’s new reality: What had once been a high-need, low-income, racially isolated school was now a gentrifying, mixed-income, racially mixed school — and parents realized that it would be up to them to backfill for the services that need-based funding from the government once supported.
Erin Ploss-Campoamor, who moved across town from Culver City to enroll her son in the dual language program, witnessed this firsthand. She got drawn into Friends of Micheltorena as a grant writer, and became progressively more involved as the organization set ever-loftier fundraising goals.
At first, “parents are clamoring for more art and more field trips,” she remembered. However, “over the years, it became more and more about, ‘We need an assistant principal.’”
Where The Money Goes
In a non-pandemic year, Micheltorena Elementary’s “March-A-Thon” event is a day-long exercise extravaganza. Students run laps, weaving across the blacktop, through the play yard and between classroom buildings, trying to dodge silly-string squirted by their cheering parents.
“It has prizes,” explained Gemma Hays, who was in second grade when we spoke. “If you run 30 laps, you get gelato.”
“Also you get an orange when you get three laps,” added then-fifth grader Mia Slowinski.
“I mainly care about the gelato,” said Sadie Hays, Gemma’s older sister.
Friends of Micheltorena puts on the March-A-Thon each year; it’s one of two tent-pole fundraisers in the booster club’s calendar.
In the fall, there’s Micheltorena’s “pledge drive.” Unlike at many other LAUSD schools, where fundraising groups ask for the same donation from each parent, Friends of Micheltorena uses a sliding scale: The boosters suggest parents making less than $50,000 a year donate $10 per month. Parents earning more than $200,000 a year are asked to give $3,600 annually.
The spring fundraiser, the March-A-Thon, is far more involved. Like a marathon-runner raising money for a charity, students will ask relatives or neighbors to “sponsor” their race around the school. Every student who donates the $20 minimum gets a prize, but many students and their parents contribute more.
In March 2021, the pandemic forced a change of plans. Organizers ditched the one-day event, opting instead for a series of socially-distanced walks on four consecutive Friday afternoons.
Even with these alterations, the boosters’ 2021 March-A-Thon fundraising goal was their most ambitious ever: $45,000.
But by the third Friday — March 19, 2021 — the fundraiser was still limping along. Between online donations, Venmo cash transfers and hand-delivered gifts, Friends of Micheltorena had collected close to $20,000 thus far.
Anxiety was turning to resignation. As kids raced up and down the sidewalk nearby, Ploss-Campoamor turned to the Micheltorena booster club’s fundraising chair, Sarah Wass, a musician and consultant to non-profits.
“I don’t even know how upsetting it might be for me to even throw this out there,” Ploss-Campamor began, “but I was saying we might need to extend March-A-Thon by a week.”
Wass winced. “We could,” she replied. “Honestly, I think it would be like squeezing blood from a stone.”
Too much was happening in the world. COVID-19 vaccines were just starting to become more widely available. LAUSD had just announced plans to reopen campuses to students for the first time in more than a year. Parents were overwhelmed.
Still, for many parents, the urgency of fundraising — not only during the pandemic, but in general — was clear.
“I was a little alarmed at how underfunded the schools are,” said Rachel Slowinski, Mia’s mom. Before she got to Micheltorena, she had an “inkling” that she’d have to get involved in raising money — but was still blown away by the need.
“I was shocked,” she said, “at how much is not paid for by the system.”
In addition to the school’s assistant principal, Micheltorena parents have paid the cost to hire teaching assistants; to pay stipends to bilingual interns; to provide counseling services, books, computers and after-school classes.
“I used to tell everyone, ‘We should do an ad on what would a regular LAUSD day looks like with the funding [the government] provided,’” said Angie Gomez, a former president of Friends of Micheltorena. “Teachers would be wearing all the different hats. If that teacher happens to be a good art teacher, wow! If she doesn’t, then that’s what you get.”
In elementary school, state law requires physical education class, but LAUSD doesn’t always provide a physical education teacher. Like many booster clubs, Friends of Micheltorena once hired an outside non-profit to provide P.E. classes at the school. (This service was among those the boosters cut after the pandemic hit in a scramble to save money; ultimately, they trimmed expenses by roughly one-third.)
“If you want a librarian more than a day out of the month or something like that, you’ve gotta help bootstrap the school,” Walter Renwick said as he picked up a prize for his daughter, a fourth grader. (He once ran the L.A. Marathon dressed as the school’s mascot, “Mitchell the Eagle.”)
The long-anticipated loss of Title I funds at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year may have put an additional squeeze on Micheltorena parents — but still, tax records show the booster club has met donation targets that most LAUSD schools couldn’t dream of hitting.
Records in our parent fundraising database show that, in 2017-18, Micheltorena’s boosters reported $188,395 in revenue. After a slight dip the following year, Friends of Micheltorena reported $205,644 in income in 2019-20 — roughly $500 per student that year.
But while that total puts Friends of Micheltorena ahead of most other LAUSD schools’ parent fundraisers, records we reviewed show they’re far from the district’s most lucrative parent fundraising group. For example:
- Parents at Kenter Canyon Elementary Charter raise $1,984 per student in an average year — the highest per-pupil figure in LAUSD we calculated. The website for the Brentwood school’s booster club website said parents pay for an extra classroom teacher to help keep fourth- and fifth grade class sizes more manageable. The booster group also covers the costs for P.E., art, music and science programs.
- At Marquez Charter School in Pacific Palisades — average fundraising: $1,424 per student — tax records show the booster club spent more than $75,000 in 2018-19 on supplies that are “not covered by LAUSD,” including “laptops and iPads for instruction” and “books for the library.” (That’s in addition to more than $586,000 for extra classroom teachers — again, for smaller class sizes.)
- Ivanhoe Elementary, which is just north of Micheltorena in Silver Lake, raises more than twice as much as Micheltorena on average: $1,117 per student. In a tax filing, Friends of Ivanhoe reported using its revenue to help pay for computers for teachers and students in 2019-20, among other programs.
- Between a booster club and a PTA, parents at Third Street Elementary in Hancock Park raised an average of $739 per student. In addition to their bigger-ticket expenses — teachers' aides, a science teacher, a computer instructor — the booster club also reported $15,000 for “copier maintenance” in its 2019 tax filing.
- Three non-profits connected to Paul Revere Charter Middle School brought in $1.5 million in 2019-20. That total included $854,546 from PRMS Student Services, which provides bus transportation to the school for a fee, transporting students from as far away as Tarzana and West Hollywood to the Brentwood campus.
Toby Hemingway helped organize this year’s March-A-Thon for Friends of Micheltorena. He questions the wisdom of routing so much money for public education through a private fundraising group.
“It’s a bit like billionaires setting up charities rather than paying taxes,” he said. “That’s all very well for the billionaire to decide where their money goes, but the idea of taxation is that all that money goes to a broader base where people who specialize in an area decide where it’s best allocated. But we lose that when we rely on individuals to fund everything.”
“All of the power,” Hemingway added, “is moving to the parents with the loudest voice and who can raise the most money. I think there needs to be a balance.”
The Inequity Isn't Just About Money
The question appeared to catch Michelle Rappino off-guard.
“If LAUSD could give [your school] more money or more flexibility,” school board member Mónica García had asked her, “which one would you choose?”
The dollars only tell part of the story, because there are a lot of limitations to how funding can be used.
Everyone in that February 2021 board meeting knew Rappino’s school needed both: At Ritter Elementary in Watts, 97% of students qualify as low-income. One-third of Rappino’s students are learning English.
“It’s almost like a trick question,” the principal replied — but García’s question was also meant to illustrate a point. Rappino paused only momentarily before answering.
“I would probably say flexibility,” she said, “if I had to choose.”
By the numbers, LAUSD’s high-need schools — like Ritter — have access to more government funding that, in a low-need school, parents would need to raise through a PTA or a booster club.
However, “the dollars only tell part of the story,” board president Kelly Gonez said in an interview, “because there are a lot of limitations to how that funding can be used.”
In her testimony, Rappino outlined the challenge: as an elementary school, Ritter’s budget is already relatively small — around $4 million — and most of that money goes to salaries: hers, a dozen teachers, two facilities workers, two office workers.
What flexibility she has comes from the major need-based programs: Title I and the district’s Student Equity Needs Index.
While California funds school districts based on how many high-needs students they enroll, district-level officials have a lot of freedom to decide which schools should get to spend that money. LAUSD’s equity index — known as “SENI” for short — is LAUSD’s method for divvying up some of that funding. SENI blends typical measures of socioeconomic status with more-unorthodox metrics like asthma rates, gunshot injuries and reports of on-campus fights.
LAUSD officials said principals have full or partial discretion over about a quarter of their budgets; Rappino said at Ritter, about 15% of her budget is flexible: “I really only have control of SENI and portions of Title I.”
LAUSD typically receives roughly $1 billion in state funding because of the number of high-need students the district enrolls. This money is meant to be spent helping the students who generated it: students who are low-income, English learners or in foster care. Most LAUSD students fit the state’s definition of “high-need,” so LAUSD takes another step when determining how much funding schools should get.
LAUSD created the Student Equity Needs Index (SENI) to identify the highest-need schools — and prioritize funding for them. In addition to the state’s high-need categories, SENI creates a ranking of schools’ levels of need based on the following metrics: low-income students with disabilities, suspension rates, chronic absenteeism rates, reports of fights or on-campus problems, asthma severity rates, non-fatal gunshot injuries, certain test score and graduation rate data.
SENI dollars are widely seen as the most flexible dollars in a school’s budget. So long as principals spend the money on programs to assist low-income students, English learners or foster youth, they have few restrictions in how to spend the money.
The portion Rappino controlled was enough to help fund an assistant principal at her school along with some supervision aides. But she knows her students need more: more help, more staff with specialized training to help students shoulder the burdens associated with growing up in poverty.
“Given the size of my budget, sometimes I have to make choices between maybe three days for an attendance counselor versus three days for a psychologist,” Rappino said. “But truth be told, I need them both.”
Principals across LAUSD say these wrenching trade-offs are common while writing a budget for a high-need school.
“You would prioritize,” said Nery Paiz, a former LAUSD elementary principal and current president of the district’s administrators union.
Let’s say your school has a psychologist on site one day a week, he said, “but you have a lot of kids struggling emotionally — you have a lot of trauma in the families there, because of unemployment, or their family situation. Can you afford to get two days of psychologists? Or three days?”
Comparing the burdens facing high- and low-need schools is fraught enough — but when we asked LAUSD budget officials about our comparisons between district spending and the parent fundraising data we gathered, they objected strenuously.
We focused on the 2018-19 school year because that’s the time period from which we were able to collect the greatest number of tax records from PTA’s and booster clubs. But LAUSD officials contended that by overlaying the fundraising data onto old budget data, we’d put too much weight on an outdated budget picture.
In 2018-19, LAUSD sent $25 million to schools through its SENI index. This year, LAUSD reallocated funding to put more than $700 million into SENI. More SENI money equals more money arriving in principals’ budgets with fewer strings attached, district officials say.
District administrators recognize “higher-needs schools need access to more discretionary dollars,” said Derrick Chau, a top LAUSD administrator who’s been a point-man on the equity index. “The more dollars that have gone into SENI, the less prescriptive those dollars have become.”
But a lack of spending flexibility is only one of the challenges a principal at a high-need school might face in spending their allotment of funds.
“Some district policies … make it more challenging for schools to spend these dollars as they would want to or need to on behalf of their students,” Gonez said.
A high-need LAUSD school may receive extra funding to hire a key position, like a psychiatric social worker or a nurse. But if the school can’t fill the opening, the school doesn’t always get to keep the unspent money, Gonez said. Schools are already struggling to hire — and high-need schools have trouble attracting staff even without shortages.
“When I speak to school leaders in higher-needs schools, they would in some ways prioritize hiring equity over funding,” said board member Nick Melvoin. “There are schools that would tell you … rather than giving me more money, give me first dibs on hiring teachers in the hiring pool.”
All of this is to say: Parents in mixed-income or wealthy schools may face pressure to fundraise — but far more LAUSD schools face the pressures of poverty. Three out of every four LAUSD schools are at least 80% low-income.
Before she won a seat on the school board, Tanya Ortiz Franklin was involved in the behind-the-scenes push to enact SENI while working at the Partnership for L.A. Schools. She feels that fears about the effects on mixed-income schools have slowed previous attempts to push more funding into high-need schools.
Concerns such as: They’ll lose Title I dollars! The parents will have to fundraise!
Those worries have been “enough to persuade some of my colleagues to say, ‘Oh wait, we’re not going to put so much more in SENI’ … because we’re worried about these schools in the middle,” Ortiz Franklin said.
(Witness: this 2017 school board debate over whether to concentrate more Title I funding in higher-needs schools. One board member opposed the move, in part, because she was worried at least one mixed-income school that would lose money “cannot fundraise that difference.”)
“Those are legitimate concerns,” said Ortiz Franklin, who represents South L.A. and San Pedro, “but it also hampers real transformation for schools that have historically most struggled.”
The System Voters Agreed To
USC professor Larry Picus wrote the book on school finance — literally — and when he saw our parent fundraising data for the first time, he saw the ripples sent forward through time by California’s historic anti-tax revolt more than 40 years ago.
Prior to 1978, Californians drove Chevrolets and had a Cadillac school system. After 1978, we drove Cadillacs and had a Chevrolet school system.
As recently as the early 1970s, California schools relied heavily on local property taxes for revenue.
For schools in wealthy neighborhoods, the arrangement worked great: property values were high, so residents could easily generate extra funding without setting sky-high tax rates.
But that system was awful for schools in low-income neighborhoods, where there was little property wealth to tax. In a landmark 1971 case, the California Supreme Court stepped in to say something would have to change: Sacramento would need to redistribute more of the state’s growing wealth to “equalize” the differences between rich and poor school districts.
The stage was set for the backlash. In 1978, voters passed Proposition 13, enacting stark, permanent limits on many forms of taxation in the state, including property taxes. Slowly, funding for all sorts of local government functions — including schools — began to drain away.
“Prior to 1978, Californians drove Chevrolets and had a Cadillac school system,” Picus said. “After 1978, we drove Cadillacs and had a Chevrolet school system.”
But when it came time for the Cadillac-drivers — many of whom supported Proposition 13 — to send their kids to school, they were faced with a choice: Send their kid to a meagerly funded public school? Or pay to send their kids to private schools? Initially, Picus said there were fears that these parents would abandon public education altogether.
But many didn’t. Instead, Picus said, “what parents did is left their kids in the public schools and then wrote checks.”
“It’s the same idea,” he said. “Rather than cut property taxes and send my kid to private school, [parents] did a much more logical thing, which is cut property taxes and then write a check to [their] local school.”
After Proposition 13’s passage, school fundraising groups started popping up everywhere, as researchers Jon Sonstelie and Eric Brunner documented: In 1980, there were 46 “local educational foundations” in California. By 1990, there were more than 300. By 1995, there were 537.
And by 2011, there were more than 900 local education foundations statewide, according to a more recent analysis by the Public Policy Institute of California. Add those foundations to the PTAs, PTOs, booster clubs and other groups, and California likely has more than 12,000 organizations collecting checks from parents to support public schools.
A Transfer Of Wealth
Natalina Capra opened her Zoom call with a group of “Venomous Spiders.” That’s what the students she’s tutoring this afternoon had voted to call themselves; every group she tutored got to pick a mascot.
Capra’s goal: help students learn to spell words that begin with a “-ck” sound. As Capra began, one of the two “Venomous Spiders” present — a young girl of no more than 9 years old — licked a watermelon rind. These two students are both English learners; English is not the primary language they speak at home.
“We were going over when to use C and when to use K,” Capra told the students as she dove into the lesson.
In spring 2021, Capra held sessions like these twice weekly for English learners at Micheltorena Elementary. Capra was an LAUSD employee, but the district didn’t pay for her time in this tutoring session.
The school’s parent booster club, Friends of Micheltorena, did.
Friends of Micheltorena conceived of Capra’s tutoring program as an answer to “pandemic homeschooling pods,” fearing the school’s lower-income families wouldn’t be able to afford to hire private tutors themselves. In fall 2020, the booster club’s program served 46 students whom the principal had recommended for extra help.
By the spring, though, the parent running the program was burning out. The group decided to retool to serve a smaller group of only English-learners: 26 students for 20 weeks.
“We just thought that during a pandemic, it was especially important that they get as much support as possible,” said booster club co-president Erin Ploss-Campoamor.
In all likelihood, this program was basically a transfer of wealth from Micheltorena’s well-off families to its most vulnerable: “It’s a safe assumption” that Micheltorena families who speak a language other than English at home are not among the booster club’s biggest donors, Ploss-Campoamor said.
Current leaders of Friends of Micheltorena seemed sincere in their desire to prevent their fundraising from turning into opportunity hoarding.
In a gentrifying school, that hasn’t always been an easy task.
Case in point: Micheltorena’s dual language program. The Spanish-language program solved the school’s enrollment challenge in 2013 by attracting newer, more-affluent families with the promise of bilingualism.
In theory, a Spanish dual language program is just as beneficial for students from Spanish-speaking households. Instead, many Latino families felt left out of the dual language program, especially at first. Paradoxically, even the most recent LAUSD statistics show the school’s traditional English-language “neighborhood” program still enrolls a greater share of English learners.
“I had one lady say, ‘I thought I had to be white to apply,’” said Angie Gomez, whose daughter enrolled in Micheltorena’s dual language program in 2013.
Parent fundraising — perhaps inadvertently — helped fuel this perception. When Gomez got involved, Micheltorena’s newer booster group, Friends of Micheltorena, had replaced the school’s venerable PTA as the primary parent fundraising group.
“Because the parents involved [in the booster club] were the parents in the dual language program,” Gomez explained, “there was a feeling that everything being raised was all for the dual language program, and the home school was being forgotten.”
As a Friends of Micheltorena officer, Gomez herself was often caught up in the tension: “We were hearing that — ‘Oh, the board is a bunch of white women’ — even when I was on the board!”
These critics had a point: Friends of Micheltorena was a majority-white institution in a school where most students, even today, are children of color. Ploss-Campoamor — who is white — said the booster group began with the best of intentions, but has nonetheless “had to actively evolve from its origins.”
“It happens across the board: white families come into these schools, and create booster groups that only reflect themselves,” Ploss-Camopamor said, “or take over existing parent groups and just co-opt all of the resources, or meet privately with principals and try to make backroom deals. None of that is OK.”
The group’s evolution has meant recruiting parents of color into leadership roles; five of the 16 Friends of Micheltorena officers are people of color, Ploss-Campoamor said. Her hope is that board diversity will help the booster group make better decisions about how to fund programming.
Inclusivity was a subtext for the March-A-Thon fundraising goal: when asked why it was so important to save the assistant principal’s job, several parents noted that the current assistant principal is a native Spanish speaker. Micheltorena’s current principal is not fluent in Spanish, the parents said.
When asked to comment for this story, Micheltorena’s principal and assistant principal both referred KPCC/LAist’s requests for an interview to LAUSD headquarters. After multiple requests, LAUSD officials did not make either available for an interview.
The group still has a long way to go. Even after a decade of demographic change at the school, most Micheltorena students are children of color. Still, Ploss-Campoamor notes two-thirds of the booster club’s officers are white. Most officers’ children attend Micheltorena’s dual language program, though two parents from the English-language neighborhood school recently joined the board.
A rich family gets to pay less in taxes, send their kids to a public school, and then they’re asked to contribute $1,000, $2,000 to the school — and they're considered generous!
Ploss-Campoamor won’t take a pat on the back for any of this — not for the new board members, not for the inventive effort to create a tutoring program for English learners: “We still have a lot of work to do … We’re only serving 26 kids” in the English-language neighborhood school, which serves some 150 students.
Friends of Micheltorena plays a key role at the school, but Ploss-Campoamor wished it didn’t have to.
Ploss-Campoamor said the 2019 LAUSD teachers strike “opened her eyes” to a view that California spends too little on K-12 education.
But if that’s so, it’s partially because voters have been reluctant to create new sources of revenues for schools. Despite massive goodwill for LAUSD teachers during their strike, district voters — not six months later — roundly rejected a parcel tax that would’ve generated an estimated $500 million for LAUSD.
In 2020, Ploss-Campoamor advocated for Proposition 15, a ballot initiative that would’ve raised commercial property taxes to generate more revenues for schools. Its failure at the polls deeply disappointed her.
Even if Friends of Micheltorena acts as a force for thoughtful integration at the school, Ploss-Campoamor also fears booster clubs’ success is a net-loss for racial and socioeconomic equity in public education.
“A rich family,” she said, “gets to pay less in taxes, send their kids to a public school, and then they’re asked to contribute $1,000, $2,000 to the school — and they're considered generous!”
“When I help fundraise $225,000 for my school,” Ploss-Campoamor said, “am I part of the whole gross unjust system that is letting these affluent families and big corporations get away with not paying their fair share in taxes?”
Fight Or Flight
Ashlyn Aiko Nelson, an Indiana University economist who has studied both property taxes and parent fundraising, said California’s history makes parent fundraising particularly frustrating.
She drew a line directly between the need for parent fundraising today and the outrage over subsidizing low-income schools in 1978. Parents in property-wealthy areas “didn’t want to fund schools at the proper level,” said Nelson: they weren't interested in redistributing wealth to property-poor areas to fund public services.
This sentiment was one of many that helped usher in Prop 13's passage.
“The outcome of that is lower levels of funding for public schools than even those districts want. And then they say, ‘Ha ha! It doesn’t matter because we can make up the difference with local, own-source fundraising.’ That’s not cool.”
Stanford University political scientist Rob Reich argued contributions to PTAs or booster clubs shouldn’t be purely tax deductible. Perhaps donors should only get tax benefits for contributions to a low-income school. Perhaps donations should be taxed, and the revenues redistributed to benefit high-need schools.
He argued allowing parents to fundraise undercuts efforts to raise new revenue for public education by, perhaps, revisiting Proposition 13 or enacting another new tax. To parents, a policy solution seems remote, abstract, “too complicated.”
“If we could act locally, as a donor, there was an extra warm glow you got,” Reich said. “You could get your name on a brick on the wall or whatever — rather than act as a citizen.”
One could just as easily make the opposite argument: that fundraising becomes a way to keep middle- and high-income parents from fleeing districts like LAUSD.
“What large city schools across the country face is a problem of trying to keep their middle class clientele in the school districts,” said Erik Hanushek, a senior fellow at the right-leaning Hoover Institution at Stanford University, “and not have them either flee to the suburbs and flee to charter schools … or go to private schools.”
Parent fundraising, he added, “is a device that has been effective at keeping some parents in their local public schools.”
“As parents flee from the public to the private sector … they have less of an incentive to support K-12 public education. If you let them raise voluntary contributions, they’re still engaged in the public sector,” said Eric Brunner, the researcher who studied parent fundraising in California in the ‘90s and now teaches at the University of Connecticut.
“That threat is always there,” noted Preston Green, another UConn professor who studies school funding and education law: the “threat” that wealthy families might pull out of public schools if they’re blocked from contributing to their school alone, or if school funding formulas change to benefit lower-income schools without an obvious upside for upper-income children.
But to what extent are L.A. parents of different income levels still “engaged” in the same schools? California schools still grapple with racial segregation. Most Black students attend schools with few white students. Most Latino kids still live in overwhelmingly Latino neighborhoods. And white parents tend to want to live near predominantly white schools.
Or, in fundraising terms: in LAUSD — a school district that’s three-quarters Latino — the average school where parents are raising more than $500 per child is 55% white, our data showed.
“And I start to wonder,” Green continued, “should that be used as a threat to do nothing? … That’s been the case generally every time we talk about funding. It’s like, ‘well, the white kids will leave!’”
“But for all intents and purposes, they’re not there anyway.”
A Surge Of Money
Tara Tortorello slides a $100 gift for Friends of Micheltorena into the pouch on her folding table and responds by handing over a time-tested thank-you prize: a plastic “balancing eagle” toy — the kind that balances on the tip of its beak.
“Thank you for donating — and those eagles are going to impress you more than you know,” Tortorello said with a wry smile in the direction of Ziv Moss, a student in her second year at Micheltorena.
Ziv eagerly snatched her prize, which she’d seen on Instagram. “She’s been talking about this for three weeks now!” said her father, Aner Moss. This is just the first week Moss had been able to make it out to the fundraiser.
They made it just in time: it was March 26, 2021 — the final Friday of March-A-Thon.
That week, the mood had completely shifted; the booster club’s resignation of just one week earlier had given way to optimism. The fundraiser had crossed the $30,000 mark. Organizers seemed hopeful that, by extending online fundraising through the very last day of the month, they might come close to hitting their original goal.
In the end, Friends of Micheltorena surpassed that goal, raking in $46,558.
“We had a surge in donations at the last minute,” Ploss-Campoamor said. “The last 24 hours, we had a huge jump in donations. Finally, our messaging got through, and I think our level of urgency kind of conveyed, ‘Hey, everybody, we really need you to step up’ — and people heard the call.”
The booster club had successfully raised enough to completely pay for its share of an assistant principal’s salary. They wouldn’t need to raid their reserves to fund the position. Micheltorena assistant principal Delia Rios returned to the school again this year.
Ploss-Campoamor’s term as co-president of Friends of Micheltorena expired over the summer. Her daughter is a fourth grader at the school, but she’s relieved at the chance to be less involved with the fundraising.
Instead, she’d like to spend more energy on figuring out a way to make parent fundraising less necessary: getting involved with efforts to raise government revenue for public schools.
“It’s made me more hyper-aware of how broken the system is, and how much we need big picture solutions.”
Want to know how we tabulated the data? Read the methodology.
- Data visualization by Melissa DeMund.
- Lead illustration by Dan Carino.
- Aaron Mendelson contributed to the reporting on this project.
The Jane and Ron Olson Center for Investigative Reporting helped make this project possible. Ron Olson is an honorary trustee of Southern California Public Radio. The Olsons do not have any editorial input on the stories we cover.