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Unequal PTA Funding Is Unfair to Students

by Chapel Barnes

This past June I graduated from Cleveland High School on Beacon Hill. Now that I’m in college, I’ve had some time to reflect on my overall high school experience. I really enjoyed my time there, and sometimes I think back to the memories I have from being in class of 2020’s Associated Student Body. I remember sitting in the main hall, seeing kids laughing and talking. Many students walked around with Cleveland lanyards. These lanyards were an item that our class sold to raise money for prom. The main way we got money to pay for prom is through student-led fundraisers. I remember planning the lanyards with my class officers, redesigning them multiple times to make them perfect. We worked extremely hard to raise money, but our funds paled in comparison to the prom funds of other SPS schools, even with the amount of work our PTA did. Across the district there’s a shortage of funds as the city decides to put money into other areas; for example, the police. We had to do a lot of work and make compromises to even be able to afford our prom venue. I used to believe that’s the way things worked across the district, until a set of data was brought to the public eye.

In 2018, KUOW published an article discussing the disparities in Seattle Public Schools PTA funds. Included in the article are a few different graphs, one of which depicts Seattle high schools’ PTA assets. At the top of the chart is Roosevelt High School, which has 3.5 million dollars in assets. The next richest school is West Seattle with around 2.2 million dollars, and then Ballard with 783 thousand dollars. On the opposite end of the chart, Franklin, Rainier Beach, and Chief Sealth have a collective total of zero dollars. Zero. From looking at this chart we can see the richest schools are north end, predominately white schools, and the poorest schools are South End schools that serve predominantly students of color. I think this is important to note because not only does this parallel the already present class and racial disparities in the city, but this gap in school funding will only perpetuate this inequity. 

First let’s think about why this gap in funds may exist. 11 percent of Roosevelt's student body is economically disadvantaged, whereas at Beach it’s 80 percent of the student body.  The median household income in Greenlake (where Roosevelt is located) is 114 thousand dollars a year. In contrast, Rainier Beach’s median household income is 74 thousand dollars a year. Why is this important to know when talking about PTA money? It provides needed context for the development of these PTA groups. PTA’s require a lot of time to organize, and funds are necessary in the beginning to kickstart fundraisers. In many low-income households, multiple people are working full-time, minimum wage jobs. There are also other factors, like finding child care while you're at meetings, or transportation. Right off the bat we have a lack of two necessary things needed to fuel a PTA, free time and money. It’s the result of already existing disparities in the city that directly impact the time and resources available to develop a PTA. 

Now let's talk about why this is important. As I already said, prom is one thing that can rely on PTA funds. But as fun as prom is, there are other areas PTA funding can impact the long-term success of students. For one, the quality of in-class learning. At the beginning of the 2019 school year, Rainier Beach students had to rally together to receive a full year of history class. In a Crosscut article, the International Baccalaureate coordinator for Beach, Steven Miller says “These years where funding issues come up, we just really dont have the PTA or or private funding, so we have to cut.” This is a very different story  from Roosevelts PTA, who in recent years used their funds to supply classes with Macbooks, microscopes, and professional cameras. We have one school that is barely able to fund their Washington State required core class, and another that is able to enhance their students' learning with new equipment. That brings me to my next point, not only does this gap in classroom resources exist in of itself, but it causes another inequality; grade and test score gaps.

I compared a few schools using a district resource called Washington State Report Card. It shows that the top three richest schools had above average test scores. 91 percent of Roosevelt students, 85 percent of West Seattle students, and 87 percent of Ballard students met ELA state standards. In comparison, 69 percent of Franklin students, 65 percent of Chief Sealth students, and 46.5 percent of Beach students met those standards. Why is this, and how does the PTA affect it? As I’ve already stated, PTAs can use their money to supply classrooms with resources, but they can also hire staff. We see many examples of this in elementary schools. 

A geo-graph in KUOWs’ article shows schools who have paid for staff using PTA funds, and ones that have not. Most schools who hired staff using PTA funds are in the north end with the exception of three elementary schools in West Seattle. The elementary schools have been able to use their funds to hire tutors, parents to help out in classrooms, assistant principals, and in-class language assistants. With more teachers and staff comes more attention per student. This can make learning in the classroom a lot easier, and can give students the support they need to do well in school.

Of course this wouldn’t be an issue if Seattle Schools were properly funded and didn’t need to rely on parents spending hours on fundraising money. One of the reasons I’m in support of Seattle PD being defunded is so those funds can be partially reallocated towards schools every year. Maybe with less police officers and more support for students at low income schools, there will be significant change in grades, test scores, and graduation rates. 


Chapel Barnes is a Cleveland high school graduate who’s now attending Eugene Lang College. She is passionate about education and social justice.

Header image: (CC license)

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