Private Money for Public Schools

What was that? Voters in the affluent Boston suburb of Wellesley, Mass., defeated a hike in the tax levy. So the school district decided it had to eliminate a Spanish program. Some parents put pen to checkbook and presented $380,000 to the school board to keep the Spanish teachers. The school board said thanks, but no thanks.

Rather than seeing the donation as a solution to money problems, officials saw it as a problem. Accepting the money would have set a precedent where wealthy individuals could have the school board OK courses it might not otherwise. The board chose to guard its role in deciding the best curriculum for all students.

The parents involved didn't realize their efforts were not the same as car washes for the school band. Their desire to influence the academic course of a public school with private money challenges the role of officials to determine how taxes get spent.

Better, and of course more difficult, would be for parents to spend their energies - and money - getting other voters to back them. Taxpayers have a stake in public eduction and need to hear from elected officials what core subjects and skills are being taught. They may not directly decide the academic content of schools, but since local property taxes make up anywhere from a one-third to half of a school budget in most states, taxpayers do exercise a form of veto.

A bake sale to raise funds for extra-curricular activities is still as American as apple pie. But school officials need to be in the loop on any private money used for public education, and draw the line on accepting money to alter their professional choices.

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