Seminar with Andrea Voyer, Department of Sociology. 

Abstract

In recent years, US parent-teacher association (PTA) financial contributions to schools have received increased scrutiny. Critics of parent fundraising for schools typically assume parents contribute in the interest of buying educational advantages such as additional teaching staff, student services, enrichment programs, and to supplement budgets that are insufficient to cover teaching supplies and teacher training. These common assumptions are problematic in that they neglect to consider the cultural contexts of school choice and parental involvement. In this article, I argue that parent giving coincides with increased demands for parental involvement, which were formalized in US educational policy in the 1990s. Educators, policy-makers, and the general public tout parental involvement at school as the key to the educational success of students. This belief in the importance of parental involvement is precisely that – a cultural belief. Despite decades of research, there is no widely accepted empirical evidence that parental involvement has a positive impact on academic achievement. However, the idea that parental involvement is important is quite impactful. Drawing on data from 28 months of ethnographic fieldwork in a Manhattan public elementary school, I show that the belief in parental involvement shapes the school's demands of parents and parents’ understanding of their roles. Borne out of the desire to provide clear, quantifiable evidence of parental involvement, PTA fundraising is interpreted to indicate an active parent body, which is believed to be a crucial marker of a “good” school. In the eyes of parents, the programs and services PTA money affords the school is often less important than the amount of money raised and the symbolic value of having a well-resourced PTA. Fundraising is the primary mode of school involvement for many parents. But fundraising is also labor intensive and inefficient – transforming parent anxieties and pressures into revenue for the school, linking parents to businesses that profit by selling goods and services to and through PTAs, and alienating families who cannot give the time or money that is expected. Although parents are motivated by an interest in their children’s success, normative pressures and institutional interests transform concerned parents into school funders.