A Cupcake War Is the Stupidest Kind of War

As far as the education of your children goes, nothing seems to be more complicated than navigating the social minefield that is the PTA. There's the constant jockeying between the stay-at-home-moms and the working moms, and then there are the bake sales. Oh, the bake sales. Nevermind that they are fraught with peanut allergy concerns and highly charged homemade vs. store bought debate. There's an even darker battle playing out on the table filled with sweet treats: The Cupcake Wars.

Yes. The Cupcake Wars. A battle so perfectly ridiculous that it makes for the quintessential New York Times article. It has everything: cupcakes, gentrification, parenting, Brooklyn, philanthropy, rich people problems, and a quote from a dad who is a "freelance copywriter" and somehow rich enough to pay beaucoup bucks for his kids' cupcakes. It's the perfect storm, and it naturally opens with the perfect sentence:

The Cupcake Wars came to Public School 295 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, in October.

OK, unless this involves an epidemic of diabetic shock, there is no way this is as devastating as any of the actual wars or earthquakes or shooters that have come to some schools around the world this year. But fine, let's indulge ourselves and find out what the hell a cupcake war is.

The Parent-Teacher Association's decision to raise the price of a cupcake at its monthly bake sale — to $1, from 50 cents — was supposed to be a simple way to raise extra money in the face of city budget cuts. Instead, in a neighborhood whose median household income leaped to $60,184 in 2010 from $34,878 a decade before, the change generated unexpected ire, pitting cash-short parents against volunteer bakers, and dividing a flummoxed PTA executive board, where wealthier newcomers to the school serve alongside poorer immigrants who have called the area home for years.

Boom. Talk about your shot heard 'round the world… Actually, this doesn't sound like it should really be a war—maybe a heated discussion, at best—but here comes your freelance copywriter dad, Dan Janzen, who came up with the price increase: "A lot of people felt like they really needed to be heard on this." I bet they did. This is Brooklyn, after all, birthplace of hands-on-to-the-point-of-strangulation parenting.

But it turns out PS 295 isn't the only place facing this kind of issue. As many neighborhoods that were once home to lower-income families are taken over by middle- and upper-class gentrifiers, the schools become the primary battleground for sorting out changing neighborhood dynamics. This can be expressed in fights over who will lead the PTA, what kinds of school events will be held, and, of course, fundraising. So this bake sale battle speaks to something much deeper. As Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Teachers College, said, "It's never just about the cupcake." That should really be a bumper sticker or a T-shirt or a tattoo that all new parents are forced to get.

Anyway, when it is not a fight over a literal cupcake, parents are often trying to sort out how to walk the line with school events between being fancy (thus raising money) and being free. Parents at P.S. 11 in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, were trying to make the hard decision between "a laid-back affair with all-you-can-drink rum punch or something more elegant, featuring donated bottles of wine" while charges of "elitism, racism and defeatism" were thrown around. (Why was that even a question: All-you-can-drink rum punch all the way.)

At P.S. 163 on the Upper West Side, Carrie Reynolds, who is co-president of the PTA, says the school has been trying to fight the impression that PTA events are for "rich people." Fifty-six percent of kids at the school receive free or reduced-price lunches (that figure was 68 percent in 2005), and for them the $65 tickets to the Winter Gala were probably out of reach. As were auction items like "a backstage tour of the Metropolitan Opera and a weekend getaway in the country." The PTA does endeavor to offer some balance with more informal family events like the International Celebration, where families can bring in food they've made, and welcome breakfasts, etc.

At P.S. 295 in Sunset Park, home of the Cupcake War, they try to do the same thing. But, the Times reports,

[S]ome of the wealthier parents were disappointed that one of their lower-cost events, a $5 winter concert series titled Beat the Blahs, drew a meager crowd to hear Cumbiagra, a local band that plays music from Colombia's coastal region. Estela Bernabe, who has a fourth grader at the school and sometimes clocks 12-hour shifts as a baby sitter, said she thought she spoke for many in saying her absence was not politically charged. "I'm working," she explained. "I just don't have the time."

Well, that's a legitimate reason for opting out of any event if I've ever heard one, much less something that sounds as snooze-inducing as a concert called "Beat the Blahs." This brings us to the larger point the cupcake was put on earth to teach us: nobody, rich or poor, wants to go an endless series of school fundraisers and events. So why don't people with money just donate it to the school without demanding auction items or cupcakes in return? Wouldn't everyone's life be a little easier if they could just write a check for whatever they can afford to give, and then they can stay home and relax and drink all the wine or rum punch they want? If you want to have some school events for bonding or community building or whatever, fine. You can make them free (or charge just enough to cover the cost of putting the event together) and that way everyone can enjoy them. And if you're someone who is really desperate to send your kids to a school that allows you to participate in the kind of bragging charity auctions bring about, then you can take your pick from the one zillion expensive private schools New York City has to offer. Problem solved. Cease fire declared in cupcake war.

As for the real cupcake war, it ended in a kind of truce. They're still charging $1 for the cupcake (which, btw, is still cheaper than you can find at any artisanal bakery in Brooklyn), but the price is now called a "suggested donation." Perfect. Totally was worth all the man hours it took to arrive at that solution.

At the PTA, Clashes Over Cupcakes and Culture [New York Times]

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