It’s no secret that Philadelphia public schools struggle with funding. As a result, some parents around the region have formed “friends of” groups to help raise funds to supplement resources. Are these groups a much-needed community aid, or do they exacerbate existing inequalities by elevating the power of privileged parents?
By Jeff Hornstein
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney talks movingly about his experience coaching girls’ basketball and the shame he felt when his inner-city kids visited suburban schools and wondered why city facilities are so decrepit. That impulse motivated Kenney to implement Rebuild, and it is part of what motivates many “friends of” groups (FoGs), community-based supports for neighborhoods public schools that have emerged organically in many Philadelphia neighborhoods.
The city’s population is now roughly 44% African American, 34% non-Hispanic white, 15% Latinx, and 8% Asian American, with 25% living in poverty. The population of the School District, however, is dramatically different, with white kids constituting only 14.5% of total enrollment in 2019-20; more than 75% of district-run schools report 60-100% of their students as economically disadvantaged.
These data have led me to believe that one of our core public education challenges in Philadelphia is persuading middle-class white families to support their neighborhood public schools, both with their dollars and with their most precious asset, their children.
The majority of FoGs have formed in gentrifying neighborhoods, where significant numbers of higher-income, primarily white people have moved into poorer neighborhoods inhabited primarily by people of color. Hollowed out by decades of deindustrialization and middle-class abandonment, a subset of neighborhoods in this city has seen modest to dramatic repopulation as urban living has become “a thing” again for middle-class whites.
Some argue that FoGs exacerbate inequity. I disagree, with caveats. The glaring inequity is there right in front of us — an underfunded school district trying its best to educate an overwhelmingly poor population with inadequate resources. FoGs are a practical response to an imminent problem.
Those of us “with choices” can use our privilege to invest in our neighborhood schools and give all the kids, the majority of whom in most schools are low-income kids of color, a better shot at a decent education — or we can decamp for private school or the suburbs. Doing the latter obviously hurts the city’s tax base and robs low-income kids of being in more integrated schools. Once middle-class people become stakeholders, they are more likely to engage in getting government to devote more resources to the entire system.
That said, it is imperative that we stay focused on changing demographics and the ways in which white privilege can crowd out working-class people of color, both via displacement and the tendency toward entitlement that afflicts many of us when we lean in “to lend a hand.” We need to have uncomfortable conversations around race, class, and structural inequality.
We must also use our political capital to push for funding equity. FoG members get on the buses to Harrisburg and have been a consistent presence at School Reform Commission and school board meetings, advocating for systemic equity. FoG leader Mallory Fix Lopez is on the school board. In short, we are stronger together.
That’s why we formed the Friends of Neighborhood Education (FONE), a peer-to-peer network of FoGs. While most FoGs raise less than $50,000 a year, a small sum even relative to an individual school’s budget, many neighborhoods have no such capacity.
Is private fund-raising at the neighborhood level an optimal solution? Of course not. But in the here-and-now, it is far better than the alternative.
Jeff Hornstein is the chair of the Philadelphia Crosstown Coalition and a founder of the Friends of Neighborhood Education.
By Katie Nelson and Ryan Good
As every Philadelphia resident knows, the School District has long struggled with inadequate funding. The situation got worse almost a decade ago, when the state of Pennsylvania implemented a series of cuts that left our schools with even less. Around this time, parents in some neighborhoods founded “friends-of-education” groups to support their elementary schools. Many incorporated as 501c3 organizations and fund-raise for supplies, art and STEM programs, and for capital projects like playgrounds, auditoriums, and libraries. The number of friends organizations keeps growing, and they have raised well over $1 million for the schools they support.
When the state cuts funding, it’s natural for parents to step in to address resource shortfalls. Our concern with these efforts relates to the broader context in which this fund-raising is happening. Three decades of research tell us that replacing state funding with nonprofit fund-raising increases inequality in access to public services, as some communities are better positioned to fill the gap than others. In a recent article published in the Journal of Education Policy, we apply this body of theory to Philly’s schools. We argue that private ad hoc fund-raising by an emergent set of school-based 501c3 organizations leaves behind those without the ability to fund-raise and compromises the very “publicness” of our education system.
The unevenness of economic growth across Philadelphia amplifies the trend toward unequal schools. Not surprisingly, our research finds that 501c3 friends groups emerge in the most advantaged, whitest neighborhoods in the city where real estate prices are rising. In short, the emergence of friends groups coincides with neighborhood gentrification. When more well-off parents come together in support of a school, their involvement sends a signal to other well-off parents about the future of that school and that neighborhood. Many studies have documented this pattern, where the efforts of more affluent parents can lead the student demographics to “flip” over several years to a more affluent, whiter student body.
We don’t mean to imply bad intentions by the friends organization volunteer network. Our conversations with these groups suggest that these parents are politically conscious citizens who genuinely and often selflessly want to help all the children at their kids’ schools. So this is a difficult message to deliver: In a context of resource scarcity and a gentrifying city, fund-raising at individual schools may benefit other middle-class families in the longer run, potentially at the expense of everyone else.
To be clear, we believe that 501c3 friends organizations should continue their work. Their efforts have benefitted thousands of children across the schools they support. But we also believe this conversation needs to more fully engage the realities of funding inequities and gentrification.
Other cities have reached a point where fund-raising at some schools is so mammoth that municipal programs gather PTA-raised funds and redistribute them to high-poverty schools. We may not yet be at this stage, but we do seem to be headed in that direction.
As researchers and as parents, our goal with the scholarly article and with this op-ed is to start a conversation about the privilege involved in “opting-in” to a school and our responsibilities to our public institutions. While the challenge of helping all the city schools feels large and overwhelming, we hope our analysis encourages parents to refocus some of their energy toward the broader school system.
Katie Nelson is a doctoral candidate at Rutgers University and a Philadelphia resident. She is a parent to one current and one future public school student. Ryan Good is an assistant professor of urban studies at Eastern Mennonite University.