Our local elementary school in Denver has no shortages of fundraisers. There is gift wrap and coffee to be sold, bake sales on election day, and in one of the fundraising highlights of the year, the school auction, which my wife and I attended yesterday.
Despite the grumbling about raising money for something that the government has undertaken to pay for, we all basically agree that the school needs the money and that the benefits are worth it. The lead organizer opened the evening with a speech in which he stated that one of the goals of the fundraiser was to make our school equal to any private school in the city. Later, over wine and hors d'oeuvres, one parent observed that our school was fortunate to be in an affluent neighborhood where fundraisers could make a difference, noting that some elementary schools make due without and as a consequence have virtually no school supplies and ancient textbooks.
At a fundraiser for an elementary school in the Denver Public Schools, talk like that isn't just idle conversation. It is a recognition that the line between a school that functions and one that is dyfunctional within the district is very thin. Yes, the school district makes payroll for enough teachers to maintain a tolerable student-teacher ratio and provides a building, but that it about it. As public school parents we rely on that foundation, but would like more for our children.
Fundraising for the school as if it were a private school isn't the only piece of the puzzle. Most classrooms have a little squadron of parents organized to pay for extras for the class, volunteer to chaperone field trips, buy thank you gifts for the teacher and just help out in the classroom. While you might think that an urban elementary school would be a little fortress to protect the children, in fact, ours is very much the opposite. The school is very open to parents (and the various guardians, nannies and grandparents who fill in for parents), because they need all the help that they can get.
On top of all of this, the school actually has quite a few tuition based elements. Full day kindergarten, early childhood education, before school language lessons, before school day care, and after school day care programs are all provided for a price not that different from the private market prices, although prices are generally on a fairly generous sliding scale that provides discounts far beyond the point at which students qualify for free and reduced price school lunches.
In short, yes, we have public schools, but in the full picture, it is more a matter of degree than absolutes. Perhaps the government provides 80-90% of the funding, but there is a meaningful private contribution to the enterprise that is our local elementary school.