The XX Factor

What Happens When Petulant Parents Won’t Share? School Funding Inequities, That’s What.

California’s Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District set off a parent revolt this past month by taking steps to curtail parents from fundraising solely for their children’s school. If proposed new rules are adopted, future donations for all instructional activities will go through a central education foundation. The motivation? Fairness.

Funding inequities have long marked the American education experience. Because educational monies come (mostly) from local taxes, spending can vary wildly between adjacent school districts. But as schools increasingly turn to parents to cover budget cuts in economic hard times, chasms have opened within the districts themselves.

You can see the results in Santa Monica-Malibu Unified. To the outside world, the two Southern California beach communities are fabulously wealthy, fully populated by show-business stars and others of significant means. Then there is reality. Santa Monica, especially, is quite diverse, with significant low-income and Latino populations.

That diversity is reflected in the individual schools. One elementary school is so adept at getting its wealthy parents to open their checkbooks that it is able to spend an additional $2,000 per student on enrichment activities, which include employing multiple reading and instructional assistants, as well as classes in chorale music, marine science, and art. But at another Santa Monica-Malibu Unified school, located just a few miles away, a significant percentage of the kids come from economically disadvantaged homes and the local PTA can’t even muster up an additional $100 per child, leaving the students to make do with a truncated music program, a few art classes, and one measly instructional assistant.

Charity, however, begins at home if you are from affluent Malibu, where the anger over the proposed change is most intense. Many say that parents will simply stop donating their time and money if forced to share. One claimed parents were being “disenfranchised” to a local paper. Another told Malibu Patch, “Our families give to the schools and principals and teachers and programs they know and love and trust.”

Please. This entire contretemps reads like yet one more chapter in the more-than-occasional solipsism of many contemporary parents, who seem all too sensitive to the problems facing their own progeny and nowhere near sensitive enough to the issues of others.  They appear blissfully unaware that, along with additional arts instruction, they are imparting lessons to their children in everything from economic privilege to virtues of selfishness. To paraphrase George Orwell, all children are equal, but some children are more equal than others.

Santa Monica-Malibu is hardly the first district to look at these parent-generated funding inequities and declare them unacceptable. Portland, Ore., for example, has had a plan in place for more than a decade that requires school-based fundraising groups to donate one-third of the kitty to a separate fund dedicated to the needs of the city’s less affluent schools. Others—including the California communities of Manhattan Beach, Palo Alto, and Albany—have moved in recent years to the fundraising model Santa Monica-Malibu is considering. Last month, the Albany superintendent gave an interview about the changeover to the Sacramento Bee. “All we are talking about it providing equity for our students within the confines of the school day,” she explained.