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Schools beg; we're poorer as a result

STEVE LOPEZ / POINTS WEST

April 13, 2008|STEVE LOPEZ

My column Wednesday about the growing cost of public education seems to have touched a nerve in a state where we've moved way, way beyond candy sales and pancake fundraisers.

If you missed it, I wrote about a meeting at the L.A. Unified elementary school my daughter will attend in the fall. More than 200 people attended, and leaders of the parents group asked us to reach for our checkbooks and help fill an anticipated $180,000 budget gap so the school doesn't lose the literacy coach, math coach and computer guy.

"Welcome to the club," wrote Mitch Lane, who said he has been asked since 1997 to donate to his daughters' public schools in La Canada Flintridge. Without parental support, he said, "our schools would be seeking disaster relief. . . . Best wishes on shedding light on one of our state government's most embarrassing blunders -- not making education funding a priority."

And what about schools where parents can't come up with the dough, as they can at my school and Lane's?

"Our fundraising was not as fruitful," said Cynthia Santos-Decure, whose son is a student in Long Beach. "We will lose our computer instructor, librarian and only have a nurse one or two days a week. Those are just the preliminary cuts. . . . I ask myself, what's next?"

It's anybody's guess. What happened to the days when public education was not just valued, but was seen as a great equalizer in American society, offering a pathway to upward mobility for even the least fortunate students?

And there's nothing to guarantee that districts won't cut deeper at schools where they know parents can afford to make up the difference. David Tokofsky, a former Los Angeles Unified board member, predicted a civil war if middle-class and upper-middle-class schools get hit harder than low-performing schools that can't afford to get by with less.

Tokofsky said he warned district leaders there should have been a parcel tax on the ballot this year to cover massive slashing by Sacramento -- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed a $4.8-billion fleecing of the state's children -- but no one had "the guts" to tell the public the truth.

And what is that truth?

The truth is that political leaders love lying to us about what a civil society costs. They're even willing to trade our children's futures for their political futures, and California is now plummeting toward the bottom tiers in funding per pupil in the United States.

Though it might be hard for Sacramento's pols to understand, sometimes you've got to find the courage to tell yacht owners you're closing their tax loopholes, tell drivers there's a stiff price to pay for a break on the car tax, or do what Reagan and Wilson did, and raise taxes temporarily to avoid draconian cuts.

Darrin James, a teacher in Santa Ana, said teachers could be laid off by the hundreds in his district.

"State and federal governments are trying to get out of the education business. They try to blame it on teachers, students, immigration, whatever they can think of. The truth is that the pillar of free education in the world, the United States, is failing its children."

And Malcolm Sharp, president of the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified board, said 60 layoff notices have gone out and parents are being asked to come up with $1.2 million by May 15.

Sharp said parents, teachers and students in his district will march to Sacramento this week to protest budget cuts and screwy funding formulas that are virtually impossible to figure out.

Sharp isn't the only one I heard from who wanted to shake a fist at Sacramento. Others were ready to start a recall of Schwarzenegger, who of course once referred to 2008 as the "year of education."

Not that he's the only target of angry teachers, parents and administrators. It is not possible to write about public education without some readers arguing that balancing budgets is as simple as eliminating bureaucracy or deporting illegal immigrants.

I'm not going to tell you there aren't a few slugs wandering the halls at L.A. Unified headquarters and other district shops. Nor would I suggest that illegal immigrants don't pose huge challenges at great cost.

As for bureaucratic and administrative fat, there's always room for a little more trimming, but nowhere near enough to offset the kind of shortages districts are looking at.

As for illegal immigrants: They're here, hell will freeze over before Washington produces a reform bill -- and until that time, the cost of educating illegal immigrants is lower than the alternative.

One more subject came up in response to my column:

Is it legal, a handful of readers asked, for parents at my daughter's school or any other to raise money that is not shared with the rest of the district?

I checked with two attorneys, former LAUSD general counsel Kevin Reed and the ACLU's Mark Rosenbaum, a member of the governor's committee on academic excellence. Both have investigated the legalities of parental support, both have written checks at public schools attended by their children, and both say there is no constitutional prohibition against it.

They both also said it's a sad state of affairs when all schools are left begging, and parents in middle-class neighborhoods, where the students already have huge advantages, are writing checks to pay for what their tax dollars once covered.

Amen.

--

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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