Photo courtesy of Paolo Vescia/SF Business TimesTodd David started the group edMatch

Fix public schools? Parents say, “We Can Do It!”

When French writer Alexis de Tocqueville studied democracy by traveling across America in the 1830s, he encountered people like Todd David — a New Jersey native who came to San Francisco in 1998.

David embodies the can-do DNA that impressed Tocqueville about early Americans: How they formed their own groups to solve problems rather than rely on a government solution that might never come.

What problem does David see today? Chronic underfunding of public schools, which leads to program cuts, which discourages parent involvement, which makes it easier for families to give up and leave San Francisco for better schools elsewhere.

It's a cycle David didn't want his three young kids to suffer from. So he found like-minded parents and started a group called edMatch to raise and distribute funds the school district can't provide.

David asks private business to match every dollar parents are able to collect through bake sales, car washes and other fundraisers.

It's not pocket change. Parents at all of San Francisco's 114 schools raised a combined $6 million last year. With edMatch's help, that means each school gets another $50,000 to boost arts, technology or whatever program is lacking.

“Government can't do it alone. I'm a big believer in public-private partnerships,” David said.

The money is given directly to each school where parents – not the school district — decide how to spend it. Then parents report back what worked and a list of best practices are shared with all schools.

“It's amazing how efficient and effective parents are with PTA money,” he said. “The key to school success is more than just money; it's parent involvement that makes the difference.”

Of course, it's easier when parents are wealthy and might even work as professional fundraisers. A Noe Valley PTA can easily raise $400,000 every year while parents in poorer neighborhoods struggle to raise $10,000.

Still, edMatch dollars are spread equally to schools regardless of location or demographic. The reasoning is that no matter what a Noe Valley school raises on its own, the $50,000 from edMatch is a big windfall for a Bayview school.

“We don't want to create disincentives for any PTA to raise money,” David said. “This is not about resolving social justice issues. This is about using additional funds as glue to bring parents into the school. Because every good school has an active parent community.”

Convincing private enterprise to donate should be an easy sell. What company doesn't want a well-educated workforce to hire from? But San Francisco's biggest industry – high tech – has been slow to philanthropy.

One explanation is that startups by their nature still need to focus on their own survival. Yet David is targeting high tech because he knows successful San Francisco companies like Twitter, Salesforce.com and Yelp will see the mutual benefit.

He also knows that young programmers eventually reach their 30s and want to start families. Then they'll care about good schools.

That's why edMatch's most popular fundraiser is the “Tech-Savvy Scavenger Hunt” set for Sept. 29. It's designed for the Mission hipster and Facebook employee wanting something fun to do that's socially aware.

Teams in costumes scour San Francisco neighborhoods — smartphones in hand — looking for clues, answering trivia questions and winning prizes.

The game has both adult and family-friendly versions where teams might be asked to chug a glass of beer or a cup of apple juice for 100 points.

“We need families to stay in San Francisco and good schools will keep them here,” David said. “That's why we want to create the Bay to Breakers of public school fundraising.”

Joel Engardio lives west of Twin Peaks. Follow his blog at www.engardio.com. Email him at jengardio@sfexaminer.com.

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