The LookOut columns

What I Say

About Frank Gruber

Email Frank

Harmonics and Disharmonics, Points and Counterpoints

By Frank Gruber

Thursday evening parents and other music lovers packed the John Adams Middle School auditorium -- recently restored courtesy the voters and taxpayers of Santa Monica and Malibu -- for the annual holiday band and choral concert, but there were almost as many performers on stage as there were listeners.

The Santa Monica and Malibu schools are renowned for music, and more than half the students at John Adams participate in the music program.

Student concerts, which happen all over the school district during December, always follow a pattern which provides a "rehearsal" -- in the original meaning of the word as a retelling -- of the function and process of education.

The programs start with the beginner ensembles and choral groups. Now that my son Henry is a lordly eighth grader, in his last year of middle school, I'll admit that despite the enthusiasm I had when he was a beginner two years ago, the sound these beginning groups create is reminiscent of the sound the River City kids create when they play their instruments the first time in the last scene from "The Music Man."

But the skill level of the players and singers increases rapidly as the evening proceeds. By the time the most advanced ensembles are playing and singing, they've reached a rudimentary level of sublimity.

What a shock: skill levels increase with how long someone has been teaching them. Education works!

I am no educational theorist, but it has struck me how children learn so well in the music program, which manages to combine both the pursuit of excellence and the idea that children learn best at their own pace. So much of the debate in education seems to be between people pushing one paradigm against the other.

Some of the John Adams Middle School's choirs at work.

* * *

The developing controversy over Superintendent John Deasy's proposal to try to balance private donations is the kind of news columnists dream about.

Just think what fun a Royko could have with those parents from wealthy neighborhoods who begrudge having fifteen percent of their donations to their local schools shared with other schools where parents have less money to make donations.

Being a parent of a child at a middle school where 44 percent of the students qualify for subsidized lunches, I am probably biased, but there is no question that the anti-sharing rhetoric is way over the top.

Theft. Redistribution of wealth. We're told that sharing a little bit would be a "tax." We're even told that parents who object to having fifteen percent of their donations shared with other schools will be so angry that they will send their kids to private schools.

Sorry, but I doubt that parents who complain about sharing fifteen percent of whatever bucks they give their kid's public school are going to fork over $10,000 in private school tuition.

Donors should remember that when they make a donation, if they are wealthy enough to itemize their deductions, the taxpayers of this country and state subsidize their generosity to perhaps 40 percent. The generosity of less wealthy donors who take the standard deduction or who have too little income to pay income taxes receives no such subsidy.

Yet there's no reason for class warfare. So far the smartest things I've read about the issue are statements from Malibu and north of Wilshire parents who support sharing.

For instance, the PTA president at Franklin Elementary, Leslie Wizan, in comments to The Lookout, made the point that when children enter middle school, their parents start to see the bigger picture and realize that their children benefit from the success of all students in the district.

This is something that I learned when my son entered John Adams. He had attended Santa Monica's alternative school, SMASH, for elementary. SMASH, like all elementary schools but probably even more so, is an insular place. There was a lot of parental involvement and fund raising, and many parents had the same feelings of "ownership" and "caring" and "control" and "entitlement" that the opponents of the fifteen percent policy cite as important in encouraging giving.

With my son at John Adams I realized that a crucial component of his education is the level of achievement of his classmates. Henry has had all the advantages, from parents with advanced degrees to his own computer, as well as -- to return to the music program -- private music lessons. Yet as important as anything else to his musical education are the musical educations of the other kids in the band. The better they play, the better he can play.

A rising tide raises all boats.

Okay, so sharing is good, and in general John Deasy is the proverbial sliced bread. But, it's dismaying to report that Mr. Deasy's rhetoric in justifying his proposal is as inflammatory as the rhetoric against it.

In the briefing that explains the rationale for the sharing proposal, the superintendent makes the point that all students have the right to achieve a high-level education, not only the right to have access to a high-level education. No one can argue with this, but then he says, in justifying the sharing of donations, that "[n]either I nor anyone in our schools will be complicit in violating any student's civil rights with respect to this basic tenet of high quality education."

"Complicit in violating." Whoa. That seems to imply that there is wrongdoing -- the violation of civil rights -- that this new policy means to correct. But if there has been wrongdoing, who is the wrongdoer? Does making a donation to your child's public school equal "violating" another student's civil rights?

My wife and I have made donations to our son's schools, SMASH and now John Adams. We've paid for private music lessons, too. Have we violated any other student's civil rights by doing the best by our own kid?

Superintendent Deasy is correct that when one donates to a school, the donations become the school's -- and by extension, the District's -- property, and the District can decide what to do with the money.

But to explain his proposed policy better, instead of trying to place it within a grand social and legal scheme, Mr. Deasy might do well simply to explain to parent donors that the educations of their own kids will be improved if all kids have more opportunities, that the professionals at the District know how best to spend the money they are given, and, at the most basic level, that the lessons about "sharing" that their kids learned in kindergarten apply to parents, too.

* * *

Never a dull moment on Seaview Terrace.

For almost six years owners of the vacant lot at the corner of Seaview Terrace and Appian Way have been trying to build apartments. Originally planned as condominiums, and thus requiring a discretionary development permit, the Planning Commission twice, first in 1998 and then in 2000, sent the project back to the drawing board.

Now a new developer has reformulated the project as rental apartments, and the project has passed administrative development review. But it needs approval from the Architectural Review Board. Hard on the heels of the Planning Commission's December 3 approval of the addition to 18 Seaview Terrace, the new project is on the ARB's agenda Monday night.

Stay tuned.

To read the school district's analysis of the proposal donation sharing plan, go to:, then click on "From the Superintendent," then click on "Draft of Proposed Gift Policy" in the calendar box for November 2003.

To read more about the gift policy controversy, here are links to Lookout articles and letters:

"District Gift Policy Stirs Controversy," Dec. 4, 2003

"LETTERS: Proposed Policy Penalizes Success," Dec. 10, 2003

"Malibu Parents Face off over Gift Policy," Dec. 10, 2003

"LETTERS: Theft not Fairness," Dec. 11, 2003
Lookout Logo footer image
Copyright 1999-2008 All Rights Reserved.
Footer Email icon