WASHINGTON — School administrators call them "Ninja parents." You'll find them marching on state legislatures to demand more funding for schools. They're also picking up the tab for new teachers or wiring classrooms for the Internet in their spare time.
Don't even think about telling them that there's some reason why their children have to put up with bad schools.
Their ability to pay to restore budget cuts or enrich programs is what's keeping many middle-class parents in the nation's public schools, experts say. Nationwide, such private fund-raising campaigns are paying for anything from teachers and textbooks to computers, satellite dishes, footballs, clarinets, or a new gym.
But while some parent groups raise more than $200,000 a year to improve educational opportunities for their children, others do well to scrape together a few hundred dollars for band uniforms in an annual auction or bake sale.
Critics say that parents are taking on too many of the costs of funding a good public education and that the burden falls hardest on the poor. With nearly half of the states in the nation facing litigation to equalize spending on education, it's also sending private money in the wrong direction - away from the poor schools that need it most, they add.
"Most states have not provided any kind of equal access to educational experiences. But what we're seeing now is that even if states manage to come up with a fair distribution system, parents with means can throw the whole thing out of kilter," says Van Mueller, an expert on school funding at the University of Minnesota.
"But if you don't let wealthy parents contribute, there's a risk that they will take their kids out of public schools," he adds.
No one keeps track of the time or money these ultra-engaged parents are contributing to their public schools, but evidence suggests that such efforts are considerable and growing.
"We're seeing a lot more schools and districts turning to alternative revenues.... We're even seeing private money going to renovate buildings, which used to be a district responsibility," says Mary Fulton of the Education Commission of the States in Denver.
The Public Education Network, an umbrella organization for some 45 parent and community groups in 26 states, says that its members have contributed $120 million to public schools in the past two years.
Parents and community groups in Portland, Ore., raised more than $10 million last year to counteract deep cuts. Their effort saved 200 teacher jobs (see story, left).
Such private funding is making a "major impact" in school districts facing severe financial stress, according to the Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB), an independent standards-setting body in Norwalk, Conn.
Most of the money parents raise is not to compensate for low funding, however, but to provide "additional support to already relatively wealthy school districts," the report concludes.
The survey, released in August, was distributed to 851 school districts. Thirteen percent responded. It is the only national study of this practice. Neither the Department of Education nor the national Parent Teachers Association keeps records of parent contributions to public school budgets.
PTA officials say that they don't measure parent contributions because they don't want parents to shoulder the burdens of what should be a free, quality education.
"Parents used to be asked to raise money for band uniforms. Now parents are being told that 'if you don't contribute, we'll cut the arts.' We're hearing that kind of comment all over the country," says national PTA spokeswoman Patty Yoxall.
"We want our members to be a voice at the table demanding adequate funding for public schools. For all of its 100 years, the PTA has been very firm in recommending that children not be used to solicit funds for any reason," she adds, referring to the recent murder of a boy who was fund-raising in New Jersey last month. School authorities are also divided over what gifts are appropriate from parents. Each school district makes its own rules. For example, in Washington, D.C., parents pay for art and music teachers and classroom aides.
Across the border in Montgomery County, Md., parents are banned from funding teachers or some equipment.
In a recent case, New York City Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew refused to accept an offer from Greenwich Village parents to fund a fourth-grade teacher who was about to be laid off. To accept the $46,000 gift from parents would be unfair to poor schools that could not match the effort and "adversely affect the opportunity for equity," he said on Sept. 22.
Three days later, the teacher was reinstated but the parents were barred from any future attempt to pay teachers' salaries. City parents could continue to "make valuable contributions to their schools within appropriate limits," the chancellor said.
Such a high-profile case may be the public face of a practice that is much more widespread. When parents in East Salt Lake County heard that their Oak Ridge school was about to lose a sixth-grade teacher last month, they set fax machines churning all over town to rally parents to meet with school authorities.
"Forty parents out of some 60 to 70 families showed up at the meeting within three hours of hearing about it, and many fathers were there," says John Weiss, who has twin daughters at Oak Ridge. "My girls had been in large classes ever since they'd been at Oak Ridge.
Finally, the school added a third teacher, and then after only a few weeks, "they told us they would have to pull her because we were short on head count. So we just offered to pay for the teacher," he adds.
As in New York, the offer was rejected. (A district rule said that only teachers funded out of official school budgets could take roll call in classes.) But the teacher was reinstated Oct. 1.
Some parent groups are urging parents nationwide to think beyond the needs of their children or their local school.
"There are real discrepancies between schools. But we're committed to the diehard belief that public schools need to exist and support every child. That's why we're urging parents to focus their energies on passing bond issues to increase the level of public funding for all schools, not just the wealthiest," says Kelly Allin Butler, executive director of Parents for Public Schools. The Jackson-Miss.-based organization was incorporated in 1991 to recruit families back into the public schools. It now has chapters in 25 states.