Education Up Front

March 9, 2004

March 23, 2004

April 13, 2004

More ways to pay for public education

First, the good news:

This month's election results showed the public's continued willingness to invest additional money to improve the state of our public schools, both in facilities and operations.

That Proposition 55 squeaked by with just under 51 percent of voter approval was almost a miracle, considering that voters also were faced with a $15 billion budget bailout measure and concerned about adding even more to the state's debt. It was a big win for local districts needing matching funds to refurbish and build public school facilities.

Locally, voters in Grossmont Union High School District did something they haven't done in nearly four decades when they passed a $274 million bond proposal.

In Santee, a parcel tax measure fell short by one half of one point -- 54.5 percent -- of the 55 percent needed to provide that district with badly needed revenues. While it failed, there was still a clear majority of Santee voters who supported it, despite the gaggle of other bond measures on the ballot.

Elsewhere, more than 63 percent in the Los Angeles Unified School District approved a $3.87 billion measure to fix and build schools in the nation's largest school district. This, after passing a record $2.5 billion measure for the same purpose in the late 1990s.

Proposition 57's passage doesn't produce additional revenues to local school districts, but the presumption is that it will preclude having to make deeper, bloodier cuts in state funding to local school districts. In effect, voters spared local districts additional grief in having to make even more drastic cuts in teaching and learning resources.

Now, the not-so-good news:

Despite the newfound money, public education remains in crisis. There aren't -- nor are there likely to be in the foreseeable future -- adequate funds to maintain and improve student achievement.

Bond measures cover only the brick-and-mortar needs of refurbishment and construction. But, bond revenues, by law, can't be used to support instructional needs -- what occurs in classrooms once they're fixed up and built.

Revenue shortages are nothing new, however, they are getting deeper and more protracted as the state continues to reel in financial crisis.

In response to stingier budgets, parents and educators are becoming more dependent on fund-raisers and other strategies to fill the schools' needs.

A recent poll reported by the National PTA shows 79 percent of American parents are being asked to fund items and needs traditionally covered by school budgets. Such items include paper, cleaning supplies, transportation, technology, teacher salaries, educational curriculum and art or music programs.

Nearly 40 percent of parents are contributing more than $100 to their kids' classrooms each year while one out of 10 say they're giving more than $300 per year, according to the survey. Those averages will need to grow substantially as the funding deficit continues to grow in coming years.

To facilitate this trend, a growing number of schools have established nonprofit foundations, using the full range of fund-raising tactics -- rummage sales, bake sales, talent shows, concerts, auctions, testimonial dinners, gourmet galas and the like. They are writing applications for grants to fund special programs at individual school sites or soliciting businesses and other potential contributors to adopt them to support specific needs.

But that's not where it stops for some schools and school districts seeking outside funding.

Do you think ballparks and bowl games have gone too far, selling their identities to corporations? Neighborhood schools may be next, beginning with a tiny school district in New Jersey that is considering peddling the naming rights to its only school on eBay.

Like those in California and other states, New Jersey schools face flat basic state aid, soaring insurance and personnel costs as well as a limited potential on the part of communities to shoulder the additional costs to build and operate needed schools.

The Brooklawn School in that state has already sold the naming rights to its new gymnasium to the local Shop Rite supermarket chain for $250,000. Children now play basketball, volleyball, jump on the trampoline and engage in other gym sports in the Shop Rite of Brooklawn Center.

According to a recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, there was no library at the school until a family of business people gave $100,000 to build what is now the Flowers Library and Media Center. While other schools banish the sale of soda pop on their campuses, this New Jersey school welcomes it, generating about $3,000 a year in just one strategically placed soda vending machine.

The Brooklawn strategy is not without its critics, though. Some who vow to protect public schools as the "last bastion of unblemished public space" are suggesting these tactics are "foolish and dangerous" and are, in effect, putting kids up for sale. School districts, they say, would be better counseled to lobby state legislatures to augment funding.

Still, the fact remains that most people don't realize how much money it takes to run a public school system. And the severity and length of California's fiscal crisis has yet to be completely felt. We're in for tight times for many a year to come.

The traditional and more restrictive ways of financing public education yesterday will not produce the results our schools need today to educate the adults of tomorrow.

Educators, parents and business community members need to think creatively to ensure the necessary resources are in place to optimize the academic achievement of every student.

Hovenic is president and chief executive officer of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce Foundation and executive director of the Foundation's Business Roundtable for Education. E-mail her at

March 9, 2004

March 23, 2004

April 13, 2004