Fight Back

By Lesley Sauls

June 11, 2010 6 min read

School districts everywhere are facing unprecedented budget cuts. Class sizes are on the rise while time in class decreases, and many schools are closing. The quality of education is in a downward spiral as districts fight to keep their lights on and classrooms supplied with minimum necessities.

The picture is gloomy, but there's a lot you can do to help.

*GET EDUCATED

Before you can fight back, you need to understand how the structure works. Budget cuts are a national problem, but according to the Department of Education, only about 10 percent of elementary and secondary education funding comes from federal coffers. The rest comes from state, local and private sources, so there are 50 different structures for funding nearly 99,000 public schools in the U.S., about 56 million students.

State funds are complex to understand and often have minimums and caps that vary from state to state. In Wisconsin, for example, the state spending cap has not kept up with inflation. This means an annual local referendum is vital to maintain the status quo, and these are increasingly difficult to pass.

Roughly 46 percent of funds come from local taxes, which are based on local wealth. A difference of as much as $6,000 may exist between the amount spent on each student in an affluent district and the amount spent on each student in a struggling neighborhood.

Calculate how much money your district needs to make ends meet, and set a goal. Research how voters turn out in your area, and gear your efforts appropriately.

*GET ORGANIZED

There is power in numbers. In Eau Claire, Wis., pockets of disgruntled people who wanted to reinstate field trip funding achieved success only when every PTA/PTO in town joined together. The same kind of organization and focus are necessary to pass much-needed referendums, but to raise funds and lobby your community in support of one, you likely will have to register with your state as a political action committee -- whether you are a group of two or 200.

*GET CREATIVE

Use catchy phrases, colorful photos and constant media attention to get people interested. Kim and Jim McNulty of Wisconsin's Stoughton Area School District worked with four other couples to form Keep Improving & Developing Our Schools, or K.I.D.S. Their group created yard signs that called out, "Vote Yes for Quality Schools," a phrase that yielded support for their referendum.

A bright and memorable logo, too, is helpful in burning your message into public minds. The Eau Claire field trip group hung a sign from a school bus that read, "Help Pave The Road For Field Trips!" Road sections were added to the sign as the fundraiser moved toward its ultimate goal.

*GET CONNECTED

Get the word out about your cause. The more your effort is in the news the more support you'll garner. Look among your team for a public relations person who is skilled in courting the media, a graphics artist to create logos and an accountant to organize finances.

A website, a Facebook page and e-mail are essential to communicate your issue to the world and drum up help, but some voters still prefer to be contacted by print, radio, TV or phone. Door-to-door canvassing is also an effective way to gather support. Establish a presence at community events to educate your neighbors about your mission.

*GET BUSY

Bake sales and carwashes aren't enough. In addition to asking for general donations, research grants available for education funding and go to http://www.k12grants.org, where grant writing is demystified. Donna Fernandez of SchoolGrants suggests creating a nonprofit education foundation to generate otherwise unavailable funds.

"Many grants that are not available directly to schools are available to nonprofits that lend assistance to schools," Fernandez says.

Partnerships with corporate sponsors can be lucrative, too. Joe Sanfelippo, principal of Roosevelt Elementary School in Eau Claire, says a partnership with Nestle has funded his Reading Is Fundamental program and an after-school homework help program.

The Box Tops for Education program can supply up to $20,000 per school for coupons clipped from packaging. Among other programs are Nickels for Schools, which is offered by Kemps dairy products, and Campbell's Labels for Education.

Local businesses, too, are eager to support education. Sanfelippo partners with a restaurant that shares 10 percent of its dinner profits on predetermined dates. Other businesses look for tax advantages by making education donations or matching funds.

*WIDEN YOUR SCOPE

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has estimated that as many as 300,000 educators in the United States will get pink slips this year. As you focus attention on your neighborhood or district, remember that a combined effort among schools, districts and states can change the crumbling structure.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has introduced the Keep Our Educators Working Act. It would create a $23 billion education jobs fund, which would be aimed at keeping teachers, principals, librarians and other school personnel working through the budget shortfalls of each state.

"Job losses of this magnitude would take a terrible toll on our education system, resulting in bigger class sizes, fewer program offerings and less time for students to learn in school. This would be a major setback for the nation's economic recovery," Harkin says.

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