Frazzled Moms–Frazzled Because of School Budget Cuts?

“As local and state economies continue to struggle, budget cuts to rich and poor school systems are increasing the reliance on unpaid parent help.”

This NYT article, “Frazzled Moms Push Back Against Volunteering,” is sure to burn up conversation in the blogosphere, especially the women’s blogosphere.

What parents of tender preschoolers are never told, but soon realize, is that when their child enters the school years, parents have to take on two, maybe three extra jobs. They are expected to be non-profit fundraisers, event producers of silent auctions launching the suburban equivalent of the Oscars, and substitute janitors/handymen/art teachers/gardeners.

This, on top of whatever 40+ hour work week many parents put in. Oh, and the time it takes to do the actual child-rearing itself.

We parents are time-starved. And in this economy, increasingly cash-poor.

It’s reached the point where schools are looking to formalize what had often been voluntary contributions to your children’s schools:

The need is so great that some school districts, like a couple of specialty schools in Prince William County, Va., have made it mandatory to commit to a small amount of volunteer time, and others are considering it. In San Jose, Calif., one elementary school district has been discussing a proposal that the families of its 13,000 students commit to 30 hours of volunteer work during the year.

Economic necessity, Mr. Parkes said, has forced some stay-at-home mothers to go back to work. “People are so busy trying to stay afloat, they just do not have as much time as they would like to give,” Mr. Parkes said, adding that he has heard similar laments in regional PTA meetings. “This seems to be a problem for a lot of schools.”

While many moms–and let’s face it, schools private and public are run on the backs of women’s voluntarism–have many reasons for both volunteering and not being available to volunteer, the bigger picture is really how schools have been forced to operate on increasingly smaller and smaller budgets.

I’m a Gen X mom, and when I think about my childhood, my mother did NOT scramble around like a madwoman baking, making crafts, helping to organize school fundraisers, or helping in the classroom. It’s not because she didn’t care, it’s because women of that generation were not called to make up for state school budget crises. Schools were decently funded back then. If kids wanted to take a special trip, we sold chocolate bars and community businesses were often happy to kick in–because these were special occasions.

Now fundraisers tap parents and community businesses for basic day-to-day operating expenses hoping to make up for persistent budget shortfalls that have no end in sight. According to Education Week, “As many as 46 states faced budget shorfalls heading into fiscal 2011, and school districts are hemorrhaging cash, too.”

Everyone’s being asked to dig even deeper to fund “extras” like special trips for the marching band. And it’s not only women who are moms to the children in schools, it’s the largely female teaching workforce that’s had to accept cutbacks in pay.

In the same Education Week post linked above, Bill Gates and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are aligned when they advise that pay bumps for teachers with master’s degrees, for example, be dropped in favor of pay incentives based on teacher and student performance.

Gates said that in his home state of Washington, teachers’ can get an $11,000 yearly salary bump for master’s degrees. That amounts to a $300 million annual cost, he said. The pricetag for similiar programs around the nation, he said, would stretch into the billions. As with many like-minded advocates of compensation overhauls, Gates said that money should be rechanneled into a system that rewards teachers for performance. (See my colleague Steve Sawchuk’s recent story on experiments in new salary models.)

Critics of merit pay systems, as we’ve reported, say there’s scant evidence they produce better student outcomes. A recent comprehensive study said as much. But Gates and many other business leaders continue to make a major push in that direction, saying its necessary to attract and reward good teachers.

Without getting into the particulars of how teacher pay should be structured, I’d like to stress my overall point: school budgets have been cut beyond the bone. We cannot expect women who are mothers to have an inexhaustible reservoir of time and labor to make up for what their children’s schools have no budget for. We cannot expect women in the teaching profession to concede incentives that make them more experienced and better trained teachers in favor of a patchwork of fluctuating pay incentives that are based on some factors outside teachers’ control.

The best, most sweeping answer is to FUND SCHOOLS BETTER. FUND THEM ADEQUATELY AND FULLY. I realize that the home foreclosure crisis has cratered much real property tax funding for local schools.

This is where the Obama administration must realize that its ineffectiveness in repairing the crisis homeowners face is directly undercutting its stated goal of restoring America’s position at the top of the world’s education systems.

“Stop balancing budgets hewing to scarcity models on the backs of women. Scarcity is a function of priority. And political will.”

So with that conclusion, with all these complications, I want to know–will women (and men) step up and vote to fully fund schools? Will parents vote to fund schools by making taxes higher? Will communities vote to make corporations in their districts pay what they should in taxes?

We could get to the root of the problem…if we have the political will and if we can force our elected representatives to have that same will.

Because that’s what it’ll take.

Cynthia Liu is the founder of, a means to engage parents, educators, and students in achieving excellence in public education.

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  1. Donna - December 3, 2010, 3:50 pm

    On the positive side (I know – it's hard to find a positive to this) – my uninvolved mom didn't have a clue of what was going on at my school. Thanks to all the time we spend today on school volunteerism, few families can say that today (at least, on the elementary school level). Students with parents who are involved at school tend to do better.

    But that's the only positive I've got! My daughter's LAUSD high school had to let 50% of their non-teaching staff go on Dec. 1 because of budget cuts. So new procedures have been instituted for things like doctor appointments. I have to go to the school website and download a form that will pre-excuse her from PE class one day next week when I have to take her out of school early for the orthodontist. As if I don't have enough trouble remembering things…

  2. cynematic - December 11, 2010, 2:39 am

    Donna, that's horrible–how can the school function with only 50% of the support staff remaining? I don't suppose any of the administrators got cut too?

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