Schools in Toronto's most affluent neighbourhoods are fundraising 300 times more money per student than needier schools, using the cash for field trips and playground renovations and raising questions about equity in the public-education system.
Fundraising figures for elementary schools provided by the Toronto District School Board and analyzed by The Globe and Mail found that children in those affluent neighbourhoods are getting almost as much as $900 each in educational extras, from new playgrounds to Scientists in Schools. The money is raised through events such as fun fairs and pizza lunches. Some schools in lower-income neighbourhoods raise as little as $3 a student.
Canada's largest school board provides special grants to schools in high-needs communities to help compensate for the vast differences.
But it still cannot catch up to the hundreds of thousands of dollars schools in the city's richest neighbourhoods raise. Blythwood Junior Public School, situated around Mount Pleasant Road and Lawrence Avenue East, a wealthy neighbourhood, raised almost $700 a student in the 2012-13 academic year. Thorncliffe Park Public School, located in an area that serves as a landing pad for recent immigrants, raised about $45.The board can't afford to fully make up the differences, according to Carla Kisko, associate director of the TDSB. "It's a serious concern because there are significant differences between communities," she said.
There are no limits to how much parent councils and schools can fundraise. Ontario's provincial guidelines have grey areas on where money can be spent, and allow for some school improvement projects that would normally be taken care of by public funding.
Annie Kidder, executive director of the not-for-profit charitable organization People for Education, said it is concerning how much schools have come to rely on fundraising to augment their budgets. The data analyzed by The Globe took into account all sources of funding outside of the education dollars provided by the Ontario government, including parent council fundraising, student fees and field trips.
"The most worrying thing is it reflects the gap we see in society. We know there's a growing gap between the rich and the poor in Canada, in Toronto," Ms. Kidder said. "To have our schools mirror that is very worrying, because the potential in public education is to overcome those gaps."
Observers don't believe there is anything wrong with fundraising, because it keeps families engaged in their schools. But there is an assumption, especially in wealthier neighbourhoods, that parents need to contribute even more private dollars to provide enrichment for their children and compensate for provincial underfunding of school programs, they say.
School boards across the country are struggling with fundraising disparities. Patti Bacchus, chair of the Vancouver School Board, said the money is often used to buy technology or specialized equipment for classrooms and there is growing concern that this is exacerbating inequity between students.
"Some schools can just ask parents to write cheques; others struggle to raise a few hundred dollars," she said.
Toronto's John Ross Robertson Junior Public School raised just over $500 a student, one of the highest amounts among elementary schools in the city. The school was ranked 8th out of 469 schools in The Globe's analysis.
The overall average raised by Toronto public schools was $149.53 a student in the 2012-13 academic year, which included extra TDSB funding for some schools in low-income areas, The Globe found.
Sue Fisher, co-chair of the parent council at John Ross Robertson, said parents raise money for gym uniforms, and enrichment workshops such as Learning through the Arts and Scientists in School. The council raises the bulk on the money through pizza lunches (about $25,000 for the year) and a fun fair.
"Parents are concerned when they see underfunding in schools," said Ms. Fisher, whose daughter is in Grade 5 at John Ross Robertson.
Ms. Fisher understands there is a disparity among schools in the city, but says unless school boards provide more funding for science and the arts, parents have little choice but to step in. "Putting on something as simple and tenable as a pizza lunch enables us to that," she said.
One model that could be adopted to equally distribute fundraising money is to pool dollars. In Portland, Ore., for example, public schools pool one-third of the money raised over $10,000 and it is redistributed between schools. The TDSB has considered pooling fundraising dollars in the past, Ms. Kisko said, but the idea has been quashed by concerns that a common pool would make donors less generous.
Ms. Kidder is also skeptical of that strategy. By pooling private funds, she said that school officials have decided that they can't afford to properly fund a public education system with public money, and that parents have to contribute through a user fee. "You have to be careful with that idea," she said.
As it stands now, however, the students who end up losing out are the ones at schools just above the cut-off for special supports. Roywood Public School is one of the schools. The Globe's analysis showed that the school fundraised about $30 a student.
It ranks 163 out of 479 schools on the TDSB's learning opportunities index, which looks at household income, parental education and the proportion of single-parent households. Schools in the bottom 150 face the most challenges, and receive millions of dollars in extra funding through the Model Schools for Inner Cities program.
Brian Fong, principal at Roywood, says his school is filled with the children of working class and working poor families. He said school events are often less about money and more about community building. Roywood holds movie nights, yard sales and pizza lunches, and raises about $6,000 a year. Recently, they accumulated enough funds to build an outdoor classroom with stone seating in the schoolyard.
"Our school council does a lot of activities, but their focus is less on raising money and more creating experiences," Mr. Fong said.