As a kid in rural Wisconsin, there were a lot of things about my school I took for granted.

In the mornings, I’d walk down my driveway and catch the bus. My school had an art and a music teacher, one who loved sequins and always had lipstick on her teeth. I don’t remember my parents ever fundraising to help pay for those things.

But that was a different place and time. Now I’m a parent. In a couple of years, I’ll be choosing a school for my daughter. It’s the things that aren’t there that catch my attention.

No school bus comes down my street. Parents recommend schools where my kid will have access to arts and music – the classes I once considered a given.

California has a funding problem, and kids bear the weight. As the end of the school year rolls around, and district officials plan for the coming year, I thought it would be good to take a step back and consider one way budget decisions affect kids and parents.

Question: “Is it fair that wealthy neighborhoods can raise money (through foundations etc.) for extra music, robotics teachers and other special programs when schools in neighborhoods without foundations are hung out to dry?  No one wants a two-tiered system of education, one for the haves and the have nots.” – Cindy Muehleman, San Diego Unified parent

The big question is what’s equitable and what’s fair. We all agree those are good things. But when it comes to school foundations, defining what’s fair is a philosophical challenge. I know, because I spent a good part of last year trying to answer it.

There are two main arguments, and you’ve already touched on the first one: Parents in wealthier neighborhoods are more likely to donate to school foundations, which are mostly parent-run nonprofits that raise money for schools. Kids who already have a leg up are able to get the “extras” in school – supplemental programs or robotics teachers, as you mention. Thus, the disparities between the have and have-nots are exacerbated.

This argument surfaced a few years ago, when the district laid off teachers. Schools in lower- and middle-class neighborhoods had to release staff. Schools in La Jolla, for example, were able to hold on to teachers by raising private money to help pay for their salaries.

The other argument, usually made by parents who lead foundations, is that schools with more low-income students get a lot of state and federal funding that wealthier schools don’t. If parents at more affluent schools didn’t raise the extra cash, they wouldn’t be able to pay for some of the basics that poorer schools are guaranteed.

One problem with that argument is that low-income schools get additional funds because the services those students need are more intensive and expensive.

Schools in middle-class neighborhoods, like Patrick Henry High, are often the ones who miss out most. Schools in the middle have relatively low numbers of low-income students, so they don’t get a great deal of supplemental funding. But nor do they have school foundations that generate large sums of money.

There are other models, in places like Del Mar and Santa Monica, where school foundations raise cash, then distribute that money evenly among schools. That seems fair. Then again, parents like to donate when they know exactly where that money is going. Some parents in San Diego told me if a model like that were tried here, parents would likely turn off the faucet.

For the most part, San Diego Unified officials don’t touch school foundations, partly because they don’t want to sink staff time into regulating individual nonprofits. And besides, when budgets are anemic, it’s hard for the district to turn away donations.

What’s often overlooked in this discussion is the fact that parents who can’t necessarily afford it sometimes face pressure to donate. Or they go door-knocking, selling gift wrap and other things people don’t need, motivated by the implicit threat that if they don’t raise enough money, their kids won’t have art or music class the following year. It’s one thing if parents enjoy fundraising or volunteering time. It’s another if it feels forced and causes hardship.

Still, none of this addresses the question of why so many parents fundraise in the first place. The answer is that it comes down to funding. California regularly ranks near the bottom of the list when it comes to per-pupil spending. In January, California ranked 46th, which was actually an improvement from previous years.

State funding can’t explain everything. California schools districts could always become more efficient and cut bureaucratic waste. But the bottom line is that parents are stepping in to fill the gaps that schools don’t cover.

Ed Reads of the Week

• A High School for the Homeless (The Atlantic)

High school is tough. There’s school, you need to sort out this tangle of feelings, and any minute, you think, you’re supposed to know what to do with the rest of your life.

But to some students, namely, the 22,000 homeless kids attending school in San Diego County, the average high schooler’s problems must seem pretty trivial.

This week, Eilene Zimmerman visited Monarch School in Barrio Logan, the only high school in the country exclusively for homeless students.

• Tough Test for Teachers, With Question of Bias (New York Times)

“Students are not the only ones struggling to pass new standardized tests being rolled out around the country,” reads the lede of this New York Times piece. “So are those who want to be teachers.”

In question are beefed-up licensing exams for teachers, meant to raise the bar for the teachers let into the profession. But the results so far show a troubling consequence: Would-be teachers aren’t able to pass them, and many of those candidates are teachers of color.

Teacher advocates are calling foul on the racial implications of the trend: For the first time, students of color make up over 50 percent of those attending public school districts. This is no time to make their teachers even whiter.

Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Stanford, chalks some of it up to a culture of testing:  “We’re kind of in a testing era in the United States,” she said. “If you have a problem, throw a test at it.”

• The Five U.S. Cities With the Most Educated Latinos (National Journal)

Among U.S. cities that have the biggest Latino populations, Florida isn’t doing too bad. Both Miami and Orlando have some of the highest rates of Latinos who went on to earn Bachelor’s degrees.

California, on the other hand, should be ashamed of itself. Five of its cities make the list of where the lowest percentage of Latinos hold Bachelor’s degrees; four cities have the lowest percentage of Latinos with high school degrees.

Seriously, California. Florida is beating you. Florida.

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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