The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2011

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OCT 2011 Issue

On Stealing from Kids

It’s an outrageous story.

Providence Hogan, a P.S. 29 mom, may go to jail for embezzling more than $80,000 from the Cobble Hill elementary school PTA. Hogan, who was PTA treasurer at the sought-after school, stole the money to pay the rent on her business—a day spa on Atlantic Avenue­—as well as on her home. In a surreal twist, Hogan, who is, like a remarkably large number of moms in brownstone Brooklyn, a trained doula, also spent the money on fertility treatments. Dubbed “Mom-strosity” by Rupert Murdoch’s inimitable—and irresistible—Brooklyn Paper, Hogan will be back in court October 3. She has until that date to pay the school back, or go to jail.

Photo © nyc school help.
Photo © nyc school help.

There’s plenty to be angry about here. Stealing from real live children in order to make new ones, Hogan seems like the bizarro local embodiment of our hyper-natalist zeitgeist, in which children are obsessed over, yet disgracefully neglected. With a kindergartener in District 15, at a school that, like P.S. 29, relies heavily on PTA fundraising, I’m enraged. “Report Card” agrees with some P.S. 29 parents who have complained that Hogan is getting off too easily: If she was an unemployed person from Brownsville shoplifting from Target, rather than a Boerum Hill businesswoman embezzling from children, she wouldn’t be able to evade prison simply by returning what she stole.

But there are others who deserve our ire more than Providence Hogan, because the real crime is that the PTA needed to raise so much money in the first place. That’s the fault of an education policy reform movement that has insisted on an absurdly D.I.Y. approach to school funding, in which the barest functioning of the school is the parents’ responsibility, rather than a right bestowed on all children by the public. What this means is that while public schools are still technically “free,” they are increasingly privatized.

Along with condemnation—which comes easily to most of us—the most common reactions to the Hogan story, from parents in Brooklyn and around the country, is awe and envy that the P.S. 29’s PTA had so much money to lose. With fervently active and well-off parents, P.S. 29’s PTA is one of the top school fundraisers in the borough; most PTAs in Brooklyn would be thrilled to raise a fraction of what Hogan stole.

People unfamiliar with public schools were surprised that the P.S. 29 PTA needed so much money. That’s because the low-key image of ladies organizing bake sales for school inessentials is badly out of date. Nowadays, the budget axe swings constantly, and a school PTA is its only hope. At P.S. 29, the PTA has been known to raise nearly half a million in a year, and its largesse funds everything from teaching assistants for kindergarteners—when budget cuts resulted in unacceptably large class sizes for 5-year-olds—to classroom supplies. When school budget cuts last year left the main office without essential supplies, the PTA raised enough money to buy printer paper for the rest of the year, according to an essay by an active parent in the school, published in the South Brooklyn Post last June. The P.S. 29 PTA provides 28 percent of the school’s total funding.

Every PTA needs every penny it can get, because parents are increasingly responsible for raising needed funds for public schools. At P.S. 261, a Boerum Hill elementary school not far from P.S. 29, PTA fundraising takes the form of writing grants to everyone from local corporations to City Council, organizing silent auctions and dance parties, and much more. That money supports school trips and sometimes sends children to Broadway shows and opera performances. But it also provides the school with the very basics: lunch aides, classroom supplies, photocopying for flyers sent home to parents—along with wild indulgences, like flu shots for school staff.

At my son’s school in Carroll Gardens, which is just down the street from P.S. 29, the PTA’s efforts fund classes in creative dramatics (with professionals from Brooklyn Arts Exchange), sustainability, and Spanish. The PTA also subsidizes a warm, lively, and affordable afterschool program—a godsend to working parents—open until 6:00 p.m. every day. Last year the PTA was so successful in its fundraising efforts that, despite vicious budget-slashing from the city, all the school’s programs remained intact.

Parents at my son’s school also buy supplies: Over the summer we received a two-page list of items ranging from hand sanitizer to Cray-Pas. Parents all over Brooklyn received a similar list this summer. It cost our family over $120 at an out-of-state Target—obviously the inventory-challenged Atlantic Center would have been an exercise in frustration—to buy everything on the list. We’re not complaining; we love our son’s school and enjoyed helping out. The problem is that not everyone has $120 to spare.

With so much dependence on—and little professional oversight of—parent largesse, theft like Hogan’s is all too common, but shady behavior from parents is a small problem compared to this one: The system is profoundly inequitable. In a system that starves the schools, the only way kids can get a decent education is to have classmates whose parents are loaded enough to provide basic supplies and programs. Sharing the building with my son’s school—in a happy partnership, not the fraught “co-location” trauma “Report Card” has described at school sites elsewhere—is a middle school and high school whose student body hails from far less prosperous families. Nearly 60 percent of its families are entitled to free lunch. They can’t be expected to buy all the supplies, nor to raise money to cover what the school lost in budget cuts: 1.5 teaching positions, a guidance counselor, most of its professional development budget, and its entire afterschool program (which includes arts and sports, as well as academic support and enrichment).

Yet instead of policies funding all schools seriously and equally, and spending money on the things that matter, what have we been getting? Treacly paeans to education as “the civil rights issue of our era,” sentimental promises that “choice” and the free market will fix everything, and perhaps most insultingly, “accountability” measures that leech money from everything that is essential, from the arts programs to the kindergarten teachers, right down to the paper in the printer.

Now, that’s criminal.


Liza Featherstone

Journalist LIZA FEATHERSTONE lives in Clinton Hill. Her son attends P.S. 146 in Carroll Gardens.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2011

All Issues