When I was a kid, parent-teacher organizations were pleasant little groups that hosted bake sales, ran ice-cream socials and helped with class parties. They didn’t delve into curricular issues and weren’t called upon to fund anything essential to the functioning of the schools.

What a difference a generation makes. With today’s pinched school funding and exploding educational needs, PTOs are essential partners in the public schools. Take, for example, some of the items the Percy Julian Middle School PTO paid for this year:

– $5,100 for a test-preparation tutoring program

– $3,500 for a sound system for the band rooms

– $4,000 for warming trays for the school lunch program

– $670 for music hardware and software

– $450 for a printer for the art room.

And those are just some of the special funding requests that were approved. The Julian PTO’s annual budget also includes a host of expected expenses, including:

– $6,500 in discretionary funds for the principal and the sports and performing arts programs

– $3,000 to reimburse teachers for educational expenses

– $10,000+ for dances, picnics, honor roll celebrations and other social and celebratory events.

You don’t need to do the math to realize that the PTOs in our public schools are supporting the quality of education our children receive. And that’s not even taking into account the role parents in both the PTOs and the School Improvement Teams play in supporting curricular needs, from running science fairs and career days to developing strategies to bolster academic achievement and discourage bullying.

That’s a heavy burden for volunteer organizations. And it’s a risky proposition for public schools. All this money is raised through fundraisers, and all this money can be lost if some of the most profitable fundraisers end.

That may happen soon. The Julian PTO counts on raising about $20,000 per year by selling pizza and burgers at lunch once a week. This one-income source dwarfs all other fundraisers combined. (CAST and BRAVO, the performing arts programs at Julian and Brooks, respectively, raise a comparable amount through their lunchtime food sales.) For awhile, it appeared that this would be the last year that these lunchtime fundraisers would be permitted because of state restrictions on food sales in the schools. District 97 has requested permission from the state to allow the PTOs and performing arts programs to continue these sales for the next five years, but this income source is unlikely to last forever.

The bottom line is this: Our schools depend on their PTOs to fund essential educational needs. If PTOs aren’t able to provide items like those I listed above, the schools and their students will be diminished.

So what’s a concerned community to do? Lobby for increased state funding for public schools, certainly. Illinois ranks 48th out of the 50 states in funding for public education. It relies heavily on local property taxes for school funding, which exacerbates the difference in resources between schools in high-income areas and those in low-income areas, an inequity that earned our state a D+ grade in Education Week’s 2006 “Quality Counts” report.

The District 97 Board of Education has been active in this lobbying effort, as have many Oak Park residents, and it’s certainly worth keeping up the pressure.

But we should also support our PTOs. I’m stunned by the lack of parent involvement at the middle school level. I’ve been to PTO meetings attended only by the executive board members, the principal and one teacher. At these sparsely attended meetings, we’re unable to tap the expertise, connections and resources of the parent community in the school. (Parents who can’t attend the meetings can read the minutes and the listserv to find out what’s going on and how they can help.)

Community members should consider buying that overpriced gift wrap paper and that extra magazine subscription. Consider it an additional tax that goes straight to the public schools. It may seem like a drop in the bucket, but it helps.

Above all, we should recognize–whether or not we have kids in the public schools–that the school funding crisis affects us all. Those test-preparation sessions help struggling students do better in school. Those warming trays enable the schools to provide healthy lunches. The sound system and music software keep our outstanding music programs strong. These are not bells and whistles; they’re educational essentials that nurture our children’s bodies, minds and creative spirits.

It would be great if our schools weren’t so dependent on their PTOs. Perhaps some day that will be the case, and we can go back to providing pleasant extras to already outstanding academic programs. (Don’t hold your breath.) But until then, we need to support these groups that help our schools do well by our kids.

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