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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE

Pupils Short-Changed Again

June 29, 2003

The Capistrano Unified School District set an unfortunate example by allowing parents to raise money so they could keep smaller class sizes in individual schools. The Saddleback schools quickly followed suit. But these "every campus for itself" campaigns open the door to ever-greater educational divides.

It's easy to understand and commend parents' fervent desire to keep smaller classes. After the Capistrano school board voted in May to abandon 20-student classes in third grade (it kept them in kindergarten through second grade), a mother from one school approached the district, asking whether that campus could retain the program if parents raised the money. Another request soon followed.

The district took a passive tone. Administrators would not suggest that schools raise the money, but parents who asked about it were told that if they could put together $40,000 by a certain date, that school could keep the program.

The result was a fund-raising free-for-all in which the earliest campuses pulled in the full amount before other campuses even knew they were allowed to do anything.

Come fall, a majority of Capistrano schools will keep the smaller third-grade classes. Several will have them for half of the school day. Unless new sources of money are found, others will have third-graders learning multiplication tables and cursive writing in classes of 32 or so.

The springtime frenzy of fund-raising has been problematic both philosophically and pragmatically.

The campaigns were so sudden and decentralized that they confused business owners. Not knowing where they should donate -- if they give to one school, will they alienate parents at another? -- many did not respond to fund-raising pleas. The $40,000 goal per campus encourages schools to stop once they reached that amount, though they might have been able to raise more toward a districtwide effort. Parents at the unsuccessful schools feel resentful and alienated. That will serve no one well next year, when the district is likely to face an even bigger shortfall.

Students at wealthier schools already get more field trips and other extracurricular goodies. But the latest divide isn't about a week at outdoor science camp. It involves an entire academic year in which some 8-year-olds will get attention that could help them master core curriculum and perform better on standardized tests. Now one Capistrano school that raised more than $40,000 is considering using the extra money to keep its campus librarian while those positions are being cut elsewhere in the district.

Irvine schools raised money districtwide to keep small classes. Capistrano officials say their earlier attempt to do the same drew little interest. Yet the fund-raising capability clearly was there, if not the will. That might have been tapped if the district had told parents in May, "The way to keep smaller classes at your school is to raise $1 million so all third-graders in the district have it."

Supt. James A. Fleming says he felt uncomfortable telling parents they couldn't raise money to improve their own school, although he's unhappy about the inequities and ponders how far such campaigns should be allowed to go. He intends to bring the question to the school board for discussion. That's a thoughtful next step.

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