I agreed to serve on the PTA of the Japanese elementary school my children attend, but on one condition: that I didn’t have to do any fundraising.
A strange demand? Perhaps, but after three years of bake sales, book sales and candy sales at our school in America, I was fed up with fundraising.
PTA dues at our U.S. school were just $5 per parent, but only a third of the families paid. So PTA volunteers spent most of their time organizing other ways to raise money.
Throughout the school year, parents were bombarded with fundraisers. I pulled out my checkbook to see what I paid the last year we were at the school: $6 for candy; $89 at an auction of donated goods and services; $25 toward a synthesizer for the music teacher; $7 at a bake sale; $37 for photo portraits of my kids; $21 for gift wrap; $32 at a book sale; and $10 for a book of discount coupons that I never used.
I didn’t mind making cupcakes for bake sales, but I resented the pressure to buy overpriced wrapping paper that I didn’t want in the first place.
Our school was not unusual. A survey conducted in the United States last year by the National Association of Elementary School Principals found that 91 percent of public schools raise funds to supplement government funding. The four most common fundraisers are book sales, product sales, photo portraits and school carnivals.
Although parents complain about the frequency of appeals, fundraising is “a necessary evil,” the principals said. It pays for things the school otherwise couldn’t afford: classroom supplies, computers, field trips, library books and playground equipment.
It turns out I needn’t have worried about fundraising here in Japan. Most Japanese PTAs do little or no sainyu katsudo (fundraising).
They get their money in a very straightforward manner: They simply tell parents to pay up. And parents do! At our school in Tokyo, PTA dues are 5,400 yen per student, and are deducted from parents’ savings accounts. The PTA collects about 1.7 million yen this way, and that’s pretty much what it spends.
Japanese PTAs rarely buy equipment or supplies for schools, which make do mostly with government funding. Also, even at public schools, parents pay for some of the supplies their children use in school, such as workbooks and drill books. Once a month, my children bring home a shukinbukuro (collection envelope) so I can reimburse the school for supplies. Last month, I paid 1,680 yen for my fourth-grader and 1,870 yen for my first-grader.
Here, the pressure on parents from the PTA isn’t about money. It’s about time. The expectation at our school is that parents will serve on the PTA at least one of the six years each child is in school. Since I have two kids, I will be tapped for PTA duty at least twice.
When Japanese mothers hear I’m on the PTA, the universal response is, “Taihen! (Poor you!)” Serving on the PTA is generally considered a headache and a major commitment of time. Many parents would dearly love to duck PTA duty. So sometimes a little arm-twisting is necessary, as I witnessed last year.
When my older son was in third-grade, no one wanted to serve as gakunen daihyo, the class representatives to the PTA. This job is something like “class parent” in the U.S., but more demanding because you have to help out at school events in addition to managing class business.
Since no one volunteered, the PTA called a special meeting. There was to be a kujibiki to draw lots. Most of the mothers of the class attended, looking tense and glum. Two unlucky ones drew the losing lots and were appointed gakunen daihyo for the school year.
Other schools have only one gakunen daihyo per class, but even setting that aside, I think our PTA is overstaffed. There are 72 parents serving as PTA officers or committee members for a school of 320 students. In comparison, there are nine officers and 35 committee members running the PTA at our old school in America, which has more students, a larger budget and more events.
As gakunen daihyo for my first-grader’s class, I’ve been called on to help organize several events, including a kansogeikai (formal party to welcome incoming staff and send off departing staff), a sawakai (informal tea party for class parents) and a school festival.
Organizing the kansogeikai involved four meetings of more than 30 people, even though we closely followed detailed plans from the year before. All we had to do in preparation was send invitations, make name tags and purchase flowers, drinks and snacks. We set up everything in a room in the school. After a round of speeches, we presented bouquets of flowers to the teachers and everyone helped themselves to refreshments.
The event went off without a hitch, but it definitely was not necessary for so many people to spend so much time on it.
I couldn’t help but think that if an American PTA organized a similar event, just a few people would pull everything together. The arrangements might not be perfect, but they’d be just fine. And the total investment of time would be much less.
On the other hand, I recognize that the aim in Japan is to spread the burden so no one has to do too much or contribute more than others. And I do think it would be nice if American PTAs could do more of that.
But the U.S. has a much wider disparity of income than Japan, which would make it difficult for PTAs to demand larger fees from all parents.
In addition, U.S. schools generally have more single-parent families and families in which both parents work, so efforts to compel all parents to serve on the PTA would probably fail.
So for now, I’m enjoying the novelty of being part of a PTA system where all parents contribute their fair share.
And I really like buying wrapping paper only when I need it.