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Spreading it Around

By Frank Gruber

November 28, 2011 -- You know a local issue is hot if the Los Angeles Times devotes most of its Sunday editorial space to it, and that’s what happened yesterday when the paper of record for about 17 million people editorialized about a vote the board of the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District (with about 12,000 students) will take at a special meeting tomorrow night.

The issue, of course, is whether the board will require the sharing of much if not most of privately-raised contributions to the schools, most of which today come from parents and benefit their own local schools. See story by The Santa Monica Lookout News,November 28, 2011.) Since incomes vary by neighborhood in Santa Monica, and between Santa Monica and Malibu, this now results in significant disparities in educational resources.

The School Board has held several hearings on the topic, including one two weeks ago where 100 residents spoke. Now Superintendent Sandra Lyon is asking the board to adopt a policy that will direct all large gifts and all funds donated for personnel and educational programs to the Santa Monica Educational Foundation, which would disburse the funds to the District as a whole.

The issue is difficult because it highlights a conflict between the importance of equality in public education and the fact that public education in California is underfunded. Parents want their children to receive the educations they need and deserve, and they don’t want them to suffer because grown-ups have screwed things up.

You can’t blame the recession, and you can’t blame California’s fiscal mess, on third-graders.

While one’s instinct (at least if one is a liberal believer in public education) is to oppose those parents who claim that they will stop donating to schools if the money does not benefit their own children directly, one needs to acknowledge that it can be counterproductive to dismiss this form of self-interest, not to mention rude to scorn generosity.

California was once known for its great and well-loved public schools. Then in the 1970s there was the great liberal victory of Serrano vs. Priest, the case by which the California Supreme Court required equal per pupil funding throughout the state. Yes, the case was an important statement in favor of equality, but it was also an important factor in the passage of Prop 13.

Talk about shooting yourself in the foot. It would have been far better to rectify inequalities in funding by directing more state funds to poor school districts, than it was to tell taxpayers that their property taxes would not be going to their local schools.

Superintendent Lyon and the School Board need to tread carefully, which, it appears to me, they are doing.

For one thing, they aren’t talking about centralizing all fundraising, only that which pays for personnel and programs. Under the superintendent’s proposal, local parents would still be able to give money to their own schools for supplies, assemblies, etc.

The superintendent and the board are also taking time to try to get the details right. Tomorrow night the board will vote on whether to approve the plan to centralize funding for programs, but, assuming they agree on that, final implementation will wait until an advisory committee returns with specifics. Some parents want to wait until the implementation plan is complete before voting on the concept, but that seems backwards and unrealistic since in any case the details of the program will be subject to change as circumstances require.

It is important to realize that although under the current system donations to schools can be considerable, averaging in some schools $2000 per pupil, they nonetheless occur in a district where parents have not been left on their own. The voters in the District have repeatedly voted for taxes to support public schools, and their elected representatives on the city councils of both cities have also directed municipal funds to the District.

At present, for operating expenses the District receives about $10.5 million from voter-approved parcel taxes, and about $8 million in joint-use type funds from the City of Santa Monica and $118,000 from Malibu. The District expects to receive almost $6 million per year from the half-cent sales tax Santa Monica voters approved last year. Those figures total about $24 million, which is about $2,000 per pupil -- about a 25% increase over per-pupil funding from the state.

District voters have also supported the District’s building program by approving many bond issues; currently the District is working through the $268 million Measure BB bond issue passed in 2006.

The voters, most of whom do not have school-aged children, approve these taxes implicitly because they believe in an equitable educational system that will educate all children to become productive members of society. Put it this way: we who want to collect social security when we retire want to invest in a future workforce that will be educated well enough to earn enough to pay for our benefits.

I suspect that many if not most parents in the wealthy neighborhoods who give to their local schools believe this, too -- that's why they are sending their kids to public school. The achievement gap doesn’t make their children better educated -- just the opposite.

Up until now, no one has pushed the option of giving to the District as a whole with the fervor with which local PTA’s raise money for their own schools. Part of the proposed plan is to turn the Ed Foundation into a more dynamic fundraising organization, in the hope that there are potential donors who, even if they have no ties to specific schools, will support the District as a whole, much as donors support public colleges and universities.

It’s a sad commentary on our times, but as a strategy it makes sense.

If readers want to write the editor about this column, send your emails to The Lookout at .

If readers want to write Frank Gruber, email The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
The Lookout.


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