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Enabling Inequality in Education

Posted: 2002-12-25

The Savage Inequalities continue: middle class parents foot the bill to make sure their public school still have art and music, foreign-language teachers, librarians, classroom aides, building renovations, playgrounds, computers, field trips, and more. Poor parents can't do this, so their kids go to schools without these "luxuries."

A LETTER arrived from the foundation of our local K-8 public school, as it does every year. It asks each family to donate its "fair share" to close the gap between the government funding and the actual cost of operating the school. The requested donation has climbed each year; now it's $2,500 per student, an amount that once could cover the entire tuition for a year at parochial school.

The donation comes on top of money raised through gift-wrap sales, scrip, a weeklong book fair, sales of entertainment discount books and an elaborate auction.

This is what public education looks like in more and more towns in California and across America. Public has come to mean parents -- parents footing the bill for art and music, foreign-language teachers, librarians,

classroom aides, building renovations, playgrounds, computers, field trips.

Parent groups across the country paid for $2 billion worth of products and services for public schools last year, according to the national Parent Organization.

With a sagging economy and rising state deficits, schools will be leaning on parents more than ever to cover deep budget cuts. And parents will continue to come through for the sake of their kids.

They shouldn't.

At least that's what I want to say. But I'll pony up, like many parents, because the clock is ticking on my son's education and he can't afford to wait for our politicians to come through. But as we write our checks and order our scrip, we ought to consider the long-term consequences of serving

as enablers of a government that refuses to spend enough money to ensure that "no child is left behind."

Education was always supposed to be the great equalizer. If everyone had access to a quality education, then everyone had a chance to succeed, no matter what one's background or income level. We know, of course, this hasn't been the case.

An achievement gap between black and white students has been documented since the 1960s. One can reasonably blame family life. One can also reasonably blame the inequity among schools. Wealthier white communities

generally have had public schools with more amenities, better qualified teachers and richer experiences than poorer black communities.

Now that schools are more dependent than ever on the fund-raising capabilities of parents, the scales tip even more heavily in favor of the affluent.

The quality of education should not depend adeptly his parents can sell cookie dough or stage a gala fund-raiser. When some schools have access to outside resources and other don't, we widen the gap between rich and poor districts. We solidify a caste system of education that was struck down as illegal with Brown vs. the Board of Education nearly 50 years ago.

Few would argue that we're being good citizens by contributing to our local

schools. But in showing our goodwill, we're creating a voracious monster. The more we pick up the tab for shortfalls in our children's education, the more reliant the government becomes on this outside revenue --and the less likely it will ever meet its responsibility to provide a solid education to every child.

As governors, superintendents and principals slash their budgets, educational equality -- that most fundamental of American values -- seems more elusive than ever. As the bumper sticker says, "It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need, and the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber."

San Francisco Chronicle

December 23, 2002


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