Which school do you want to support?
If you can get things without paying for them, are they less valuable?
Of course not. Value is value, whether paid for in cash, barter or psychic rewards.
The "wealth" of a school depends deeply on the skills, energy and time that moms, dads, students, and community members can bring to bear. From athletics and school events to school committees and tax campaigns, volunteers are essential to the fabric of most schools. Their contributions of time and expertise are sometimes celebrated, but rarely if ever systematically recorded on a school's financial statements.
Volunteers are stealth wealth. The California State PTA, which keeps a record for all its members, estimates that in a single year PTA volunteers alone donated more than 20 million volunteer hours. Using IRS guidelines, in California this is roughly the equivalent of $500 million.
Like all wealth, volunteer value is unequally distributed and frequently squandered.
In California's wealthiest communities, schools are blessed with the help of college-educated parents with the freedom to commit significant time in support of their children's schools. In schools that do a good job of corralling this free talent, parents provide all manner of assistance to their schools, including financial and legal help, organizational and technical consulting, and more.
They help arrange community events for the school, including fundraisers that convert local good will into dollars. As "room parents" they amplify teachers' and administrators' ability to communicate effectively with the whole school community, setting up complex lines of communication. They arrange school partnerships with local businesses. They organize the development of local bond campaigns or parcel tax measures. At elementary schools they also often help out in classrooms, sometimes reducing the ratio of students to adults in a significant way.
Your budget doesn't count the hours /
that parents help for free /
Stealth wealth from parent power /
to get from A to Z.
In communities that are struggling, by contrast, parents are far less able to help their schools. In the scheme of things, volunteering in support of the school is a luxury if more basic needs are not met, like keeping a roof over one's head, food on the table, and shoes on your children's feet.
This is more than just an impression, or a stereotype. An annual survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports on differences in volunteering activity by ethnicity, marital status, and educational attainment, which correlates with income. Volunteerism is a valuable resource everywhere, but it is unevenly distributed. Some communities and schools are in a better position than others to recruit moms and dads and put their skills to work for kids. This difference plays a very real and usually overlooked role in the gaps between schools of privilege and schools of poverty. Addressing this disadvantage is part of the reason why California established the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), which allocates extra funds to schools where there are concentrations of students in poverty and with limited English skills.
There is nothing easy about corralling volunteers. It's hard to know what to ask of them. People come with different skills, time constraints, and commitments. Language barriers can be an obstacle. Even with the best intentions, some do not follow through because...well... life gets in the way.
Some of the highest-value volunteers in education are parent leaders. The PTA and other parent organizations help school leaders make the most of the available volunteer time. They bring order to random good will and and accountability to random good intentions. They communicate. They make direct and forceful requests on behalf of teachers and school leaders, and mitigate the flakiness that threatens any volunteer endeavor.
Oh, and they also learn, and teach. It is not an accident that Ed100 was, itself, substantially built by volunteers! (We're proud of that, but not foolishly so: please click the Donate button if you can!)
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