Los Angeles Times

Unintended consequence of foundation groups: inequality

On a typical day at Harbor View Elementary School in Corona del Mar, students use iPads to complete spelling exercises, learn math facts and work on reading activities.

The iPads were paid for by the Harbor View Dads group, a fundraising organization that spent several years raising enough money to purchase 172 devices for the students in kindergarten through sixth grade.

Whittier Elementary is just a short drive up the freeway in Costa Mesa, but in many respects is worlds away from getting the technology the students at Harbor View have at their fingertips, said Patrick DeVusser, a fourth-grade teacher at Whittier.

The situation casts light on a question that few Newport-Mesa Unified School District parents, teachers and administrators would like to discuss: Are students in middle-class Costa Mesa getting the same educational opportunities as those in more affluent Newport Beach?

"It's that thing that no one wants to say because you can't fix it," DeVusser said. "It's more complex than one simple solution."

Newport-Mesa Unified is a basic aid district, which means that property taxes create enough revenue to fund school budgets without supplemental state funding. From that pool of money, the district dolls out funds equally based on the number of students being served at a particular school.

Some schools in Costa Mesa's lower-income areas receive additional funds through Title 1, which was created to ensure that all children, regardless of their family's income, have a fair and equal opportunity to obtain a high-quality education.

Newport-Mesa Unified serves more than 21,000 students at 32 elementary, intermediate and high schools on a budget of about $242 million.

Many parents believe the district's budget is not enough to adequately serve each of the schools, allowing them to churn out the high-caliber students that the world has come to expect from the next generation.

For this reason, some in the community have banded together to create nonprofit parent foundation groups that raise money to supplement the district's core programs, said Diana Long, executive director of the Newport Harbor Education Foundation, which serves Newport Harbor High School.

In addition to technology like iPads, foundations can help to fund part-time teacher salaries, supplemental programs like music and art and enhanced science programs, as well as pay for other classroom items that teachers would otherwise pay for themselves.

In recent years, Newport Harbor's foundation has raised money to support free after-school tutoring and special programs for students whose parents did not attend college, which places them at a greater disadvantage when it comes to applying, Long said.

"We've seen the budgets dwindle year after year," she said. "When you tug at your heartstrings, you care most about your children and your children's friends and the community in which they attend school. You want everyone to succeed."

However, researchers believe that the same foundations formed to increase educational opportunities in schools are reintroducing a funding imbalance that the California Supreme Court sought to eliminate in the 1970s.

In its Serrano vs. Priest decision, the court ruled that spending needs to be equitable among school districts so that a child's education is independent of the economic standing of the area in which they live.

Cal State Fullerton professor Sarah Hill and her colleagues have been gathering information and tax data for 1,500 education foundations to create a database that highlights the difference in funding among districts.

"The Supreme Court said that students have a right to equal protection," she said. "The state made great efforts to try to provide an equal education, and these foundations are sort of offending that. This means a drastically different quality of education. Only some kids are getting access to that."

Public school funding inequality has become a growing trend in recent years, Hill said, and Newport-Mesa is no exception.

Newport-Mesa was among the top seven Southern California school districts when it comes to raising funds, according to the data. Irvine Unified School District ranked second on the list.

While Hill's research primarily compares different school districts, the contrasts among schools in Newport-Mesa are a reflection of the differences between the two cities that make up the district — more affluent Newport Beach versus primarily middle-class Costa Mesa.

The median income in Newport Beach hovered around $109,677, according to U.S. Census data collected between 2008 and 2012, whereas it was $65,373 in Costa Mesa for the same time period.

In Newport-Mesa Unified, there are 13 foundations serving schools on an individual level. Out of the 20 schools in Costa Mesa, there are four foundations serving Costa Mesa Middle School and High School, TeWinkle Middle School and Estancia High School, Kaiser Elementary and Woodland Elementary, and California Elementary. The nonprofits raised about $484,000 in 2012, according to tax forms.

There are nine foundations serving the 12 schools in Newport Beach. In all, they raised about $3.6 million in 2012, according to the organizations' tax forms.

The only group that funds all of the district's schools is the Newport-Mesa Schools Foundation, which provides money to individual teachers through a grant program, said Barbara Harrington, president of the Newport-Mesa Schools Foundation.

In 2012, the organization raised slightly more than $1 million, according to tax forms.

When the Newport-Mesa Schools Foundation was first formed in the 1980s, it raised money to provide services like extra music teachers and instruments for schools, similar to how current foundations operate at individual campuses, Harrington said.

However, more-affluent communities became upset that they were raising money for teachers on the poorer side of town, she said. In response, the organization changed the way it operates.

"If you try to equalize it, and people see that more money is coming from the Eastside and funding the poorer areas, you'd find that people on the Eastside wouldn't give as much the next year," she said.

While the pockets may not be as deep in some Costa Mesa schools compared with Newport Beach communities, student education doesn't suffer, DeVusser said.

"We don't have a foundation that sits behind us and asks us what we need," he said. "We do have incredible teachers that work every day to make sure kids are receiving a quality education, regardless of where they live."

The Costa Mesa High School Foundation has been expanding in recent years in order to access more donors and be comparable to other foundations in more-affluent areas, said Foundation President and Newport-Mesa Board Trustee Katrina Foley.

Foundations have proven to help schools deal with education cutbacks handed down from the state in recent years, she said.

"Foundations should come in and pay for the extras," she said. "We need to get back to that."

The notion of combining all foundations into one single fundraising effort for schools in a district has worked well for other areas in Orange County, Hill said.

While some have reservations about a similar process in Newport-Mesa, Long said that it could work, but perhaps not as well.

"It takes a special philanthropist who wants to give to a large quantity of students," Long said. "It's possible, but it might not be as effective."

Hill hasn't been able to come up with a situation that would equalize funding for all schools, but insists that it's a topic worth exploring.

"We thought we had resolved this issue 40 years ago," she said. "We need to ask if as a society we're OK with this. We might be. If we're not, we need to come up with a solution."

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