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'Private' public schools

December 26, 2005

THE UNDERLYING MYTH OF public schools is that they provide a roughly equal education to all. This is clearly untrue, even in California, where schools get most of their money from the state and therefore should get about the same amount per student.

Outdated funding formulas, which probably made some sense when they were set up more than 25 years ago, have some school districts getting hundreds of dollars per student more than others. The 50 or so wealthiest school districts get even more under a strange rule that allows them to escape the state's per-student funding altogether.

Such inequities are heightened when private money enters the mix, as it does increasingly. School leaders, eager to raise achievement, are in the unenviable position of trying to figure out when private spending by parents enhances education -- and when it is simply unfair.

A case in point: the Fullerton School District, where officials wanted to incorporate laptop computers into the course work at some schools. Nice idea, but the district didn't have the money for the computers. Its solution was to tap parents for the $1,500-per-child cost. Loaners are available for families who can demonstrate financial need, but that leaves the working and middle class -- and the proud -- in a bind. Those students can attend non-laptop classes, which might mean transferring to another school.

Not all districts are so shortsighted. A few years ago, the Capistrano Unified School District was so tight on funds that it no longer could afford to keep class sizes at 20 students in the youngest grades. Parents at more affluent schools raised the money to keep the programs -- at their children's schools. Still, that provided enough relief that the board was able to pay for poorer schools for that year. But what about the years to come? District trustees laid down the law: Fundraising would have to cover every school in the district. Parents rose to the occasion, raising enough money for all. Sadly, that was a rare exception to the rule.

Private money in public schools can help all students, or it can create a system of haves and have-nots that eventually could creep into schools statewide -- smaller classes for children whose parents pay up, along with better-qualified teachers and better equipment. California's public schools can improve only under a system of public support, not by parsing them into privatized segments.

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