Public Schools, Private Money

Private money for public education? That once would have seemed a contradiction. Today, however, America's public schools are getting a critical infusion of cash from nongovernment sources.

This money is helping fill some voids in American education - such as the gap between what's needed to boost the performance of students in poor, urban districts, and what's available from tax dollars. Increasingly, too, private money fills a gap between what more well-off parents would like to see spent on their schools, and what tight public budgets allow.

In some cases, private dollars are renewing debates about equity in education - whether such money widens the disparity between schools in wealthy and poorer areas. Overall, however, the impact is overwhelmingly positive.

A few examples:

*The $100 million donated by Eli Broad, head of the financial services firm Sun America, to improve training for school administrators in Los Angeles.

*The $12.8 million Target Stores has distributed through a program that allows customers to designate schools (public or private) they'd like to receive 1 percent of the value of their credit-card purchases at Target.

*The hundreds of thousands of dollars in "fax grants" given, with minimal red tape, by the Philanthropic Ventures Foundation to teachers in San Mateo County, Calif., who are short of money for special projects.

*And, not least, the many foundations and clubs formed by parents to boost school funding in their communities - spurred by state cutbacks, court-ordered efforts to redistribute property-tax dollars, or simply by a desire to enhance the education given their children.

Those parent groups are admirable expressions of civic involvement. They are in the long tradition of activism through parent-teacher groups. But they are also the reason for concerns about equity.

Parents, typically, want to preserve arts or sports programs. Or they may want to fund a special science or environmental project. Sometimes they want to "buy back" a teacher or librarian who's been cut from the staff.

Equity-conscious school officials, however, are likely to argue that allowing such private funding only widens the educational gap between rich and poor.

Sometimes a compromise is reached. Portland, Ore., for example, encourages parental donations, though most of the nearly $800,000 raised annually comes from parents with children in the 10 or so schools in wealthier neighborhoods. Most of that money boosts those schools. But a third of the funds goes to the Portland Public Schools Foundation, which offers grants to the city's 80 to 90 other schools.

That arrangement, now in its fourth year, has worked in Portland. Other communities may opt to allow parents a totally free hand to augment local school budgets.

Equity will continue to hover as a national and state concern, and a possible source of litigation. It's a concern best addressed by setting a level of educational adequacy that takes into account the requirements of today's workplace, and that should be attained by all public schools. Government funding should make it possible, at least theoretically, for schools to reach that level.

Private funding, whether Bill Gates's $1 billion to give inner-city kids college scholarships or a parent clubs' funding for band or arts, can take the level a little higher. Such efforts are part of the creativity, local autonomy, and choice needed in an educational system as far-flung and diverse as the country itself. As a rule, they should be encouraged.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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