It still feels like summer outside, but I'm already thinking about poinsettias. More specifically, I'm deciding whether to sell poinsettias, candles, spaghetti-dinner tickets and fast-food discount cards to help fund my son's high school speech and debate team, or just donate $1,000 to the booster club.
As a longtime public-school parent, I'm not exactly surprised to find that my tax dollars don't cover the cost of an education; anything extracurricular requires extra cash. Over the years I've contributed to the PTA and all sorts of activities designed to raise money: jog-a-thons, dance-a-thons, even a color run, in which kids were pelted with colorful paint powder as they raced around the school track. But now that my son's a freshman, the requests for parental support are more pronounced.
Truly, I was delighted to hear that my son wanted to play football and had made the speech and debate team. Both programs have long histories at the school, which played its first football game in 1894 and founded its speech and debate club not long afterward.
I was less delighted to discover that each football player was asked to find three sponsors, at $100 each, before even starting classes. It sounds great on paper: Local businesses sponsor a local player and, in return, receive public recognition in the game programs. In practice, it means a lot of football players (and their parents) trudging from business to business in the summer heat, practicing their sales skills. But it's an essential part of the football fundraising routine: Each year it brings in about $20,000 to help finance the freshman, JV and varsity teams.
Later on, my son will go door to door finding sponsors for a "lift-a-thon" and will sell tickets for the annual pancake breakfast.
Public high schools in California have, of course, long requested supplemental funding from the community, but it wasn't always this extreme.
Twenty-five years ago, our high school's football program received $32,000 a year from the district, or about 64% of the roughly $50,000 it needed to operate. Now the district provides $7,000 of the football program's $110,000 annual costs.
And I know we're not the only ones scrambling. When Proposition 13 was enacted in 1978 to limit property taxes, local revenue atrophied and school districts were forced to rely on often cash-strapped Sacramento.
More recently, school funding took a big hit during the Great Recession and the state's ensuing budget crisis. Despite countermeasures including state laws that established minimum funding levels and authorized a temporary tax increase, the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau show that California ranks 36th in the nation in spending per pupil.
With the years of plenty quite clearly behind us, some schools have taken a hard look at whether to keep programs like football at all, or pare down to the absolute academic essentials.
Those determined to offer extracurriculars don't have many options. They can't charge fees for activities — the "pay to play" model runs afoul of the California Constitution, which mandates free public education — so they resort to nonstop fundraising.
Our city's median household income, at about $67,000, is just $6,000 above the state median, and fully 51% of students at my son's school qualify for the National School Lunch Program. Against this backdrop, it's not likely that many parents will select the $1,000 membership level for the Speech and Debate Boosters Club; instead, they'll hawk poinsettias and all the rest. I think I'll choose that route too.
I wish I could offer a better alternative. Since I can't, I remind myself that even the cumulative amount requested in donations for booster fees and myriad fundraiser purchases, not to mention outright donations of food, drinks and other items, is still far less than what I'd pay for tuition at a private school.
What nags at me is the principle: Public school is supposed to be free (after taxes, anyway). But I know I shouldn't spend too much time focusing on such high-minded ideals: I've got pre-orders for poinsettias coming up soon.
Lisa Lewis is a writer based in Redlands.