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Tapped, schools turn to parents

Rich and poor districts alike face steep cuts. Want to avoid layoffs or save sports? Send cash. Some just can't.

April 20, 2008|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

South Orange County families are being urged to donate $400 per student to save the jobs of 266 teachers in the Capistrano Unified School District.

Parents at Long Beach's Longfellow Elementary are among countless statewide who are launching fundraising foundations.

Bay Area parents launched a campaign featuring children standing in trash cans; the theme is "Public Education Is Too Valuable to Waste."

A free public school education is guaranteed by the state Constitution to every California child. But as districts grapple with proposed state funding cuts that could cause the layoffs of thousands of teachers and inflate class sizes, parents are being asked to dig deeper into their pocketbooks to help.

"Public education is free, but an excellent public education is not free at this point," said Janet Berry, president of the Davis Schools Foundation, which recently launched the Dollar-a-Day campaign, urging citizens of the city near Sacramento to donate $365 per child, grandchild or student acquaintance.

But "we never really imagined the magnitude of the problem, the budget cuts, would be this great."

Educators must finalize their budgets for the next school year before Sacramento votes on the state's spending plan. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposed budget would cut about $4.8 billion in education funding this year and next. As a result, potential layoff notices have been issued to 20,000 teachers, librarians, nurses and others.

In addition to increasing class sizes, school districts across the state are considering closing schools, eliminating International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement courses and doing away with sports.

School districts have long trotted out worst-case scenarios in an effort to sway lawmakers before they vote on the budget; this year, however, educators and politicians say lean times are ahead.

Public school district fundraising foundations were first formed after voter approval in 1978 of Proposition 13, which limited property tax increases and dramatically reduced school finances. Those groups have long helped parents in affluent areas enrich their children's public school educations in ways that include field trips, music classes and such expensive classroom equipment as digital cameras, scientific robots and laptops. Today, such groups are fighting to pay for the basics: teachers' jobs, manageable class sizes, nurses.

"It's gone beyond frills at this point," said David Wagman, president of the Peninsula Education Foundation, which is asking Palos Verdes parents for $200 per child to save the jobs of 59 teachers. PTAs and students are also holding fundraisers.

Education officials acknowledge that these fundraising groups are more successful in wealthier areas, increasing the divide between the haves and the have-nots. And they can make financially strapped parents in affluent districts feel like second-class citizens.

Achievement gap

"Parents in well-to-do communities can raise significant sums of money to augment their local schools' budgets, while schools in low-income neighborhoods fall further behind," said state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell. "This is part of the reason that we have an achievement gap in California. We have an economic and moral imperative to close this gap."

In the Anaheim City School District, four of every five students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, a poverty indicator. A district volunteer-led foundation raises about $50,000 annually through employee contributions and fundraisers to send all sixth-graders to overnight science camp in the San Bernardino Mountains.

The Anaheim parents are never asked to do more than volunteer for small fundraisers, such as bake sales or selling gift wrap or entertainment books.

"It's not even a consideration to be able to ask them for money," said district spokeswoman Suzi Brown. "When we look at what other districts are doing, they've got foundations that have paid staff. We don't compete with that at all. We are in a completely different league."

David Long, California's education secretary, acknowledged the inequity but said money from nonprofit organizations and federal funds earmarked for poorer schools help level the playing field somewhat. However, he said the only way to fix the state's finances is for the Legislature to approve Schwarzenegger's budget stabilization act, which would put away surplus revenue during economic booms for use in leaner times.

"We do not want to continue to have these conversations" about cuts, he said. "It's hurtful for the children of California."

Meanwhile, more than 600 foundations across the state are raising money for public schools and districts, said Susan Sweeney, executive director of the California Consortium of Education Foundations. In recent months, she has seen an increase in the number of calls from parents interested in starting such groups.

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