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Editorial

Public schools, private donations

The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District is trying to balance parental donations with the need for equal education opportunities for all.

November 27, 2011

If a well-heeled neighborhood of Los Angeles wanted better police protection, would it be OK for the residents to donate money to their local police station so it could assign an extra patrol car to their streets?

Most people would rightly say no. Law enforcement is a public service; taxpayers support it for the safety of all, to be deployed as needed to provide the best protection for the city. Residents might hire a private security guard for their neighborhood, but they cannot reshape public allocations of resources to benefit themselves through private donations.

So is it all right, then, for parents to lavish donations on one school, providing it with art and music classes, instructional aides and extra library hours, while a neighboring school in the same district might have none of those?

This question is being asked more often in these times of inadequate funding for public schools and increased donations to make up for lost programs. It came up, briefly, in the U.S. Department of Education's civil rights investigation of the Los Angeles Unified School District, where schools attended mostly by black students lack the library books, computers and other amenities found at mostly white schools — not because the district distributes public money unfairly but because of parental donations in white neighborhoods.

And the question is being asked with particular vehemence in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, where PTA donations add up to more than $2,100 per student at Point Dume Marine Science Elementary School in Malibu but only $96 at McKinley Elementary in Santa Monica. Point Dume, where 2% of the students are poor, uses that money for classroom aides, a reading program, choral music and other extras. McKinley, where 41% of students are poor, makes do with far less.

The school board is considering following the lead of several other districts by centralizing much of the fundraising. Donations for personnel would go to a districtwide nonprofit, which would distribute the money more evenly among schools. Donations for supplies and other extras — assemblies or field trips — would remain at each school. Under this formula, about half of Point Dume's parent donations would go into the community pot.

Parents at the more richly endowed schools — which tend to be in Malibu — often answer the equity question by saying, "It's our money, and no one can tell us where to give it." But they cannot universally apply private sector rules to the public schools, a system in which, California courts have ruled time and again, there is supposed to be an equitable distribution of resources regardless of students' race or family wealth. Allowing parents to provide all the extras they want at one particular school is akin to a voucher system: The parents get their allowance from the state, then add to it to create a semi-private education.

Parents already accept all sorts of limits on donations. A wealthy father wouldn't be allowed to treat his son's fourth-grade classroom to a school week at a deluxe science camp in Hawaii while another fourth-grade teacher's class did without trips.

That said, it doesn't help poorer schools for more affluent ones to be stripped of extras. And various Malibu families have threatened to stop contributing if their largesse is pooled among all the schools. Point Dume would receive a fraction of its parents' donations under centralized fundraising; many parents might wonder why they're bothering to donate large sums if it makes little difference at their children's school. (They should keep in mind, however, that the city of Santa Monica recently passed a sales tax, of which half the proceeds, or an expected $6 million a year, go to the school district. That money is distributed to all district schools, not just those in Santa Monica.) The district's PTAs already are supposed to put 15% of their donations into a common "equity fund," but not all of them do, district officials say. And some high-donation schools actually have a greater proportion of impoverished students — and lower state test scores — than low-donation schools. Parents could validly question where the equity is if they're picking up more of the burden for schools where parents appear less willing.

Donations rose substantially in the Palo Alto and Manhattan Beach school districts after they switched to a shared system. But not all school districts are the same. Those two districts have higher ratios of affluent to lower-income families, making it easier to help the have-nots. In L.A. Unified, by way of contrast, centralized parental donations would be virtually useless. There are so few affluent schools compared with impoverished ones, no school would realize a noticeable benefit if the donations were shared.

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