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Smart Equity  

By Frank Gruber

August 30, 2010 --My views about how to deal with the disparity in parental support between “high-income” schools and “low-income” schools are shaped by the school funding court cases of the ’70s. These were the cases where plaintiffs from poor school districts sued to get per-student funding equal to that provided by taxpayers in rich districts.

Ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court decided that unequal funding did not violate the U.S. Constitution, but supreme courts in many states, including California in the famous Serrano vs. Priest decision, found the disparities to be unlawful under state law. As a result, local school boards lost control of their budgets as nearly all school funding was funneled through Sacramento.

California schools have been in decline ever since. Now instead of local funding for schools, each district receives a per-pupil payment from the state, regardless of local conditions. While local school boards have one responsibility -- to educate children -- the state has many other responsibilities, and has many other political interests demanding money (e.g., prison guards), and education funding has suffered.

The problem is that while voters are willing to pay taxes for local schools, they aren’t willing to tax themselves for the whole state. The Serrano decision was a big contributor to the success of Prop. 13 in 1979.

Serrano tried to address a real problem -- inequality in school funding is wrong -- but the court’s solution was too doctrinaire. Rather than put all the money in one pot for purposes of leveling, it would have been better to let wealthy people tax themselves, but mandate that the state find money to make up the difference in poor districts. It was crazy exercise in hyper-fairness to discourage people from taxing themselves for education.

One result was the flight from public schools by affluent parents, who sent their children to private schools, further weakening the public schools both in terms of demographics and political support.

So here we are with the disparity in donations. (See: Ed Board Focuses on School Fundraising Disparities, August 26, 2010)

There’s no question that the School Board should make sure all the students in the district have the same opportunities to learn, but it is counter-productive to discourage parents from making donations. While I support the current equity plan instituted when John Deasy was superintendent (frankly, it doesn’t appear to reallocate enough money to discourage fund raising), I would be concerned about going further.

Instead, to make sure there are equal educational services, what the Board needs to do is organize district-wide fund raising programs, probably through the Ed Foundation and the P.T.A. (building on the great job they did with the Save Our Schools fund drive), to support those schools that are unable to generate a lot of support from their parent communities. The S.O.S. drive showed that there are businesses and individuals not affiliated with any one school willing to support all the schools.

It’s also worth pointing out that seven of the largest donors to the S.O.S. campaign (more than $10,000 each), were six P.T.A.’s and one other organization associated with well-off neighborhoods in the district (namely the P.T.A.’s from Franklin Elementary, Malibu High, Webster Elementary, Lincoln Middle School, Roosevelt


Elementary, and Juan Cabrillo Elementary, and the Malibu Special Education Foundation), indicating that if asked, parents from those neighborhoods would also donate to district-wide causes. (Among the biggest donors were also P.T.A.’s from less affluent neighborhoods -- this was a campaign to which everyone contributed.)

“Make the pie higher” was one of George W. Bush’s famous malapropisms, but in this case the School Board should keep in mind that we need a pie of large dimensions, whatever those dimensions are.

* * *

As for how to spend any money that can’t be used for regular educational services, I have a suggestion: music lessons.

One truth that becomes sadly obvious as you watch a student progress though our local schools (my son graduated from Samohi in 2008) is that the percentage of African-American and Latino students participating in the District’s vaunted music programs decreases as the level of the ensemble increases, so that there are few black and brown faces in the highest levels of the orchestra and band.

When it comes to the achievement gap, you can cite all sorts of statistics that tie academic performance to the educational achievements of a student’s parents, and the fact is that on the average African-American and Latino parents have less education than white parents. This disparity can explain some of the achievement gap.

But it’s ridiculous, given the vibrant musical traditions in the African-American and Latino communities, to have a musical achievement gap. And given the well-studied connection between musical achievement and academic achievement, there’s likely a connection between one gap and the other.

There’s only one explanation for the musical achievement gap: children from middle-class and affluent families take private music lessons. (Often, and I say this from personal experience both as a child and as a parent, whether they like it or not.) It would be highly beneficial if the District, or the City of Santa Monica through its recreational programs, could address this inequality by at least providing small group lessons after school, with outreach to parents to make sure that their children put in the half-hour of daily practice that is so important.

Someone who really understood this was Jackson Browne -- one of the great things about his involvement in the “For the Arts” campaign of the Ed Foundation was his insistence that a large amount of the money he helped raise would go to music programs for economically disadvantaged students in the District.

When my son entered ninth grade at Samohi a parent there told me that the school’s marching band was also its “biggest gang.” We should take that as an inspiration: let’s get the City to establish bands and orchestras in our neighborhoods, and have our young men and women battle over whose is best.

Frank J. Gruber is the author of Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal, available at Hennessey + Ingalls and Angel City books in Santa Monica, at City Image Press, and on

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