Private funds, public schools Government must prevent divide along economic class lines

October 12, 1997|By KALMAN R. HETTLEMAN

Recently, New York City schools Chancellor Rudy Crew refused to allow a parent group, which had raised $46,000 almost overnight, to fund a classroom teacher cut from the school's budget. But after community outrage, a media barrage and a lawsuit, he backtracked and agreed to pay the teacher out of regular school funds.

In Seattle, after $58,000 was sliced from his budget, an vTC elementary school principal asked parents to contribute $171 apiece to cover the loss. Despite criticism of the plan, half of the parents agreed to ante up.

In Bowie, controversy still surrounds a proposal made two years ago by parents, teachers and community leaders to raise $5 million for a high school auditorium that the Prince George's County school board said wasn't affordable.

At a time when a firestorm is raging over whether public funds should be spent for private schools (through vouchers), the issue of private funds for public schools is starting to set off sparks of its own.

Public schools across the country are increasingly graduating from bake sales and supermarket register tapes to big-ticket fund raising to supplement strapped budgets. Parents who once came to the schools' rescue for teacher supplies or band instruments now donate teacher salaries and expensive instructional technology and pay high student activity fees.

One national authority estimates that 3,000 public schools have their own charitable foundations.

But some policy-makers are willing to look a gift horse in the mouth. They claim, as Crew did in rejecting the parents' donation, that large-scale private fund raising creates unacceptable inequities among public schools in the same district. They cite the inverse relationship between the needs of individual schools and the ability to raise private money.

Well-off parents have deeper pockets and greater access to private funding than do low-income parents. The principal of a low-income school in Kentucky compared the $213 raised at his school's carnival to the $15,000 netted at a carnival held at a nearby school in an affluent neighborhood.

Crew says he'll continue on equity grounds to oppose contributions that upgrade a school's basic instructional capacity. The Chicago school system goes further, limiting parent fund raising to $1,500 for small schools, $3,000 for large schools.

On the other hand, many school districts impose no limitations.

In Baltimore, several schools have foundations that raise sizable sums which support core instruction. In at least one neighborhood school, parents pay for a classroom teacher.

Proponents of a no-limit policy cite the virtues of parental participation, the "right of parents to spend on their own children as they wish" and, especially, the imperative of keeping middle- and upper-income families from abandoning the school system and city. Even substantial private contributions will not lift city schools to the resource level of suburban schools.

Moreover, proponents doubt that a reasonable line can be drawn separating acceptable from objectionable donations. If classroom teachers are out, what about librarians, nurses or after-school recreation staff? What about part-time instead of full-time staff? Gifts from corporations that are school partners? Grants from outside foundations?

But equity advocates counter with a different set of vexing questions:

Would no-limit proponents allow wealthy communities to pay privately, for example, for two or three teachers and computer labs? What about a parent group, such as one in New York, that has started a business that generates substantial profits plowed into the school? And what if a residential special benefit district elects to levy taxes to hire teachers in addition to police and street cleaners?

At least two Maryland school boards have wrestled with this issue.

In Montgomery County, private funds can be used "to purchase supplemental educational materials or equipment that enhance the instructional program" but not "to employ anyone to work in the schools during the regular school day."

Howard County has decided that "to preserve equity or fairness," fund raising must be for "those activities not normally provided through the Board's educational budget process."

It's relatively easy for these well-to-do districts to draw the line when all schools are funded at a reasonably adequate level of services. But poor urban districts such as Baltimore - where the funding base is well below adequate opportunity-to-learn standards - would need the wisdom of Solomon to devise a satisfactory policy that balances equity and parental prerogatives.

And the problem is getting worse in the broader social and political context of what former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert B.

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