When my kids started pre-kindergarten in New York last year, the school issued parents with a long list of items to buy and bring in. This was not, as in state school in Britain, a list of uniform and PE kit requirements but rather necessities including paper towels, glue sticks, a year’s supply of paper plates and plastic cutlery, cups, napkins, board markers, crayons and packing tape. Classroom supplies, in other words.
These donations were discretionary; no one was going to yell at you if you didn’t bring them in. And in the sheer volume of stuff being asked of each parent – for two kids in separate classes, it was way too much to be carried in on a single trip – the tacit understanding was that those who could afford it were providing for those who could not.
This seemed to me right and reasonable at the time. The New York education system is as cash-strapped as any and, at least in the small scale, asking affluent parents to help out makes sense. The upset in Britain over crowdfunding at schools this week, however, reminded me how immune I have become to the broader fundraising landscape in New York. This is what Britain will look like in 10 years’ time unless the Department for Education steps in. It’s not a good scene.
Last week, all four- and five-year-olds in New York were given their kindergarten placements and the scramble to wheedle, beg or gerrymander your kid into a better school zone began. In our area there are three schools: two have among the best test scores in the city, one has among the worst, with an almost 40 percentage point difference between them. The more arresting figure, however, is the disparity in funds raised by the “good” and the “bad” schools, which stands, incredibly, at almost $900,000 (£700,000) a year.
That is a staggering amount of money for the parent-teacher association (PTA) of a single elementary school to raise annually. But it is completely standard among the city’s highest performing elementary schools. And of course, it isn’t only about the money. A PTA capable of raising almost $1m a year requires an awful lot of working hours that come, inevitability, from the efforts of large numbers of stay-at-home mums, or from families able to fundraise by employing sufficient help at home.
It also comes down to contacts. The main engine of most school fundraising initiatives is the annual auction; a school with a poorer pupil base can’t attract either ritzy donations from big businesses or squeeze the parent body for wild bids come auction night. My children’s school does qualify for federal Title 1 funding, which kicks in when at least 40% of the children come from low-income families, but that extra cash – about $500 per pupil – can’t begin to compete with the fundraising of wealthier schools.
Most four-year-olds in our neighbourhood start out at the same school and as a result it is the dream of the city: friendly, local, diverse. But within a year everyone will scatter and polarise. Eventually, the sheer volume of middle-class families for whom $50k a year private school fees aren’t an option will probably force a turnaround in the school’s intake and it too will be able to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. The greater unfairness, of course, is that it should come down to this in the first place.
• Emma Brockes is a Guardian columnist