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Commentary | VOICES / A FORUM FOR COMMUNITY ISSUES

Public Schools Are Becoming Charity Cases

October 11, 2003|Seth Shteir | Seth Shteir is a teacher at Children's Community School in Van Nuys.

What do Dave Matthews' recent concert in Central Park, Bill Gates' donation to New York City public schools and parent fund-raising in Irvine have in common? For one, they were all successful private fund-raising efforts for public schools. AOL, which sponsored the Dave Matthews concert, committed $1 million, plus $50 more for every person who signed up for AOL software. Gates rallied with an impressive $51 million to develop 67 new schools in disadvantaged communities. Irvine parents managed to raise $420,000 to preserve the 20 to 1 student-teacher ratio in kindergarten through third grade.

Though these private philanthropists certainly deserve recognition and kudos for their generosity, their actions raise fundamental questions about the roles of private fund-raising and our government. Is the fact that private fund-raising for public schools is flourishing a triumph of the American dream or a more sinister slip into the abyss of privatization?

There is nothing new about fund-raising for public schools. Long before Dave Matthews, Bill Gates and the Irvine Education Foundation, parents of school-age children were having bake sales to raise money to buy a class hamster or for library books. And let's not forget the high school car washes for the model Congress in Washington, D.C., or the band trip to Vancouver.

Private fund-raising for public schools has been around as long as the proverbial spelling bee. The difference is the extent of funding and level of reliance on outside sources in recent years.

It may come as a surprise to some that in California there are more than 400 local foundations dedicated to raising funds to improve the lives of children in public schools. In fact, there is even a parent organization called the California Consortium of Education Foundations, a nonprofit committed to "improving the lives of California's children." One of the workshops at their upcoming conference is titled "Major Donors: It's All About Relationships."

But who can blame these organizations for doing charity work associated with California's children and public education? Certainly nobody can dispute the need of the institutions or their worthiness.

For example, the Los Angeles Times this year cited a $381-million budget shortfall for L.A. Unified schools. Such a deficit would mean possible teacher layoffs, eliminating counselor positions, library hour reductions and maintenance delays. A Daily News article said officials were considering reducing spending by $50 per child a year, even though this would mean "a loss of instructional materials, resources for the students and funds to support professional growth."

It's wonderful that private individuals have become the "white knights." But lest we become too self-satisfied about our ability to raise private funds for the public schools, consider a caveat. Few are questioning the transfer of responsibility from the state and federal government to the private sector. This phenomenon has become so commonplace that the debate has shifted away from "Why are we raising funds for a public school that is supposed to be funded by the government?" to "How can we acquire enough major donors to bridge the funding gap at our school?"

Despite the California budget crisis, the faltering state and national economy and the huge expenditures for the Iraq war, our society should be able to come to some agreement on the value of funding public education.

Citizens with a vise grip on their wallets and politicians who waffle on the issue of levying taxes for public education should consider the merits of a good education and the severe consequences of a lackluster one.

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