WASHINGTON — So how can affluent parents contribute to their local school without making the whole system of funding public education less fair? Take a look at Portland, Ore.
It's the largest urban school district in the Northwest, and 90 percent of families still send their children to the public schools. Portland was traditionally a high-funding district, but a six-year tax revolt slashed school budgets 20 percent in the 1990s.
"For the first four years, we cut 630 administrative positions to avoid touching teachers. But by June 1996, we faced having to cut 500 teachers," says Portland school superintendent Jack Bierwirth.
The community did not take it lying down. Some 30,000 parents took to the streets. Local historians say it was the largest march in the city's history, outside of World War II.
Affluent parents also petitioned the school board to buy back teachers through private donations. The district worried that such a solution would be unfair to poorer schools.
Parents from all over the district met with school and business leaders. In the end, parents agreed to contribute 33 percent of the funds they raised to a new private foundation, which would distribute these funds to poorer schools in the district.
"In eight weeks, parents and community groups raised $10.6 million," says Cynthia Guyer, executive director of the Portland Public School Foundation."
The 33 percent solution still leaves richer schools with more resources, but school administrators insist that the compromise was worth making.
"There is no perfect solution. But just ducking the question because we did not want to face it leaves parents stuck raising money for field trips while we're cutting teachers," says Superintendent Bierwirth.
Portland parent May Wallace lives in one of the poorest and most ethnically diverse schools in the district and participated in parent task-force meetings on this issue. "At our first meeting, other school reps were bragging about how they had raised $30,000 with a magazine sale. I was just astonished because our school goes all out for one fund-raiser. We work on it all year, and we're happy if we bring in $1,500," she says.
"I don't think the solution we came up with is perfect. But I felt that if we did not do something, there would be a two-tier system," she adds.
Activists say they could face more deep cuts this spring, and question whether they can repeat last year's effort. "You shouldn't have to have bake sales to buy teachers back. We're victims of our state's inability to figure out a tax structure that adequately funds schools," says Ms. Guyer.