Schools in affluent neighbourhoods are fundraising almost $50 for every dollar raised by a needier school, new data show, raising concerns about a growing inequity in public education.
Survey results released Monday by the advocacy group People for Education showed that Ontario schools in the richest neighbourhoods used fundraising dollars to spruce up their playgrounds and equip their students with laptops, Chromebooks and iPads, while those in low-income communities struggled to raise money for nutrition programs.
The widening funding disparity is common in school boards across the country. The survey found that for every $1 raised by an elementary school in a poor neighbourhood, an affluent-area school raised $49, up from $1 and $25 nine years ago.
Read more: A tale of two schools: The correlation between income and education in Toronto
"The role of public education is about giving everyone a fair and equitable chance," said Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education. "What [the data] is showing us is the gap in fundraising is growing and that's worrying in terms of the impact it has on schools."
There are no limits to how much money parent councils and schools can raise. The Ontario government introduced guidelines in 2012 to prevent schools from spending fundraising dollars on items that are publicly funded.
Richard Francella, a spokesman for Education Minister Mitzie Hunter, said fundraising money can't be used for classroom learning materials, textbooks and capital projects that increase operating costs. But he said it is "appropriate" to use the money for field trips, guest speakers and scholarships.
Still, there are loopholes.
While the guidelines prevent parents from building an extension to their school building, they can renovate the existing building and retrofit a gymnasium, for example, Ms. Kidder said. And there is a great deal of ambiguity as to which classroom supplies are essential enough to be subject to fundraising restrictions. School councils can buy better materials for art classes, Ms. Kidder said.
Ms. Kidder said she doesn't believe there is anything wrong with fundraising, because it keeps families engaged in their schools. But she said the province needs to lay out stronger and clearer guidelines on what should be covered by public funding.
"Where is the line? What about library books? What about computers? What about the playground? What about musical instruments?" she asked. "This can all have an impact on how kids feel about their school." (The fundraising data is part of People for Education's annual report, which is based on survey results from 1,101 schools, representing 22 per cent of the province's publicly funded school system, and looks at everything from arts education to special education.)
The Toronto District School Board, Canada's largest school district, provides special grants to schools in high-needs communities to help compensate for the fundraising differences. It can't compete, though, with the hundreds of dollars raised by schools in the city's richest neighbourhoods.
Some parent councils have taken it upon themselves to bridge the fundraising gap between schools.
In Mississauga's affluent Port Credit neighbourhood, Kenollie Public School sets aside some of its funds to help schools just a few kilometres away.
Principal Jennifer El Refaie said money raised through a fall fair and a community barbecue have been put towards the school's playground and an outdoor classroom. But the parent council has also supported other schools, she said.
Last year, a neighbouring school had a large number of Syrian newcomer families and Kenollie held a clothing drive for winter wear. The school also used some of its fundraising dollars to buy dual-language dictionaries for the neighbouring school.
At its fall fair in September, Ms. El Refaie said one booth will be set aside to specifically help raise funds for another school that needs new technology, including iPads and Chromebooks, for its students.
"It is a well-to-do neighbourhood, but I find that they're just so giving," Ms. El Refaie said of the families at her school. "They might give to our school, but they also give to many other places."