How do you make schools better, so they produce armies of working taxpayers who keep the republic afloat?
There's little agreement, as Tuesday's court decision on California's teacher tenure rules proved again.
So you can expect a long and bitter appeals process, and you can expect campuses to remain philosophical and political war zones in the meantime, with enduring differences as to whether any deficiencies are the result of too little money, lousy management, uninspired teaching or socio-economic realities.
But many parents decided long ago that they can't afford to wait for the improvements they want. Take Friends of Thomas Starr King Middle School, for instance, which has provided sweat equity and fundraising that have helped transform the Los Feliz campus into a destination for families that might have avoided it just a few years ago.
Tomas O'Grady, founder of Friends of King, has worked with other parents to install a garden, cover the cost of field trips, buy a power washer to cut through gum and grime, and deliver flowers to teachers. Test scores have jumped dramatically over that time.
The Friends of King raised more than $100,000 this past school year, and about $34,000 of that money has been set aside for the next big project — giving King's dreary exterior a fresh paint job.
Which raises a few questions.
Are parents letting school districts off the hook by covering the cost of basic maintenance? What about the vast majority of schools where parents can't raise money for a fresh coat of paint? And would parents' time be better spent lobbying for systemic changes in the way all schools are operated and funded?
Full disclosure: My wife spent several years fundraising for Ivanhoe Elementary School in Silver Lake, and we've asked ourselves all those questions many times.
More full disclosure: I've known the indefatigable O'Grady since our kids went to preschool together, and he's always been a guy who did the hard work while others were standing back complaining about politics and bureaucracy.
"There's nothing I can do about the system and how inefficient it is," said O'Grady, who believes there are "too many suits and too few painters" in the district. "But something I can do, and we can do, is lead by example, and we have succeeded."
Even though most L.A. Unified schools are in communities that can't match the money or community support in Silver Lake and Los Feliz, O'Grady believes parents everywhere can make a difference by taking action rather than waiting for it. He said he's gone so far as to clean toilets at King, and he's set up a schedule for parents to join the volunteer janitor brigade.
In O'Grady's case, no one can argue that he cares only about the schools his kids attend. O'Grady is the founder of EnrichLA, a nonprofit that has recruited volunteers and plowed through bureaucracies to build edible gardens that serve as nutrition and science study centers on 64 campuses.
But let me get back to the paint job.
O'Grady said more than one teacher had suggested there were greater needs on King's campus than fresh paint. And a parent told me that although it would be lovely to have a fresh coat of color, it's maddening that it won't get done any time soon without parents stepping up.
"I'm incensed that the district continues to neglect us," said the parent, exhausted by the need to raise money for supplies and basic maintenance. The parent told about a teacher who had to make 45 copies of a single workbook so every student could have one.
Teri Levy told me she was burned out by years of fundraising at Wonderland Elementary in Hollywood; in her case, she felt like she'd crossed a line when parents began buying giant packs of Costco toilet paper for school bathrooms. She said parents raised as much as $900,000 a year, but she felt frustrated by limited control over how the money should be spent, and she was conflicted about district inequities.
All that money, she came to believe, "is a Band-Aid that is not going to fix anything, and for me personally it's like writing a check so a principal will have a discretionary fund."
O'Grady, meanwhile, seems incapable of burnout. He and Principal Mark Naulls have formed a team built on mutual respect to help rebuild King's reputation, and Naulls told me he thought a little more curb appeal was owed to students, parents, staff and the community. Naulls said the paint job was his idea.
"I want to be a good neighbor," the principal said.
So when will we see the makeover?
Well, the artist's rendering O'Grady solicited looks great, transforming rusty old King's main building into a sleek white edifice. But this is still L.A. Unified, so even with a powerful fundraising posse, things take time and lots of money.
O'Grady went to a private contractor for a rough estimate, and the number he got was $13,500.
But the district has to find the painter and oversee the job, and it does math a little differently. The initial estimate was roughly $100,000.
So what's that breakdown, $13,500 for the paint job and $86,500 for the bureaucracy?
A district official told me the district has mandatory insurance, environmental, wage and material standards, and he didn't know whether that was factored into the $13,500. But he said the district will bid the job or partner with an acceptable contractor, possibly even the one O'Grady solicited.
If they don't move quickly enough, I wouldn't be surprised if Friends of King gets the job done under cover of night.