The worst kind of solution to any problem is the one that seems to solve it in the short term but over the long haul makes things worse. Such is the case regarding a new approach to funding cutbacks in education that the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District has adopted. In the face of declining state and federal revenues, the school trustees voted to establish an independent education foundation. It will seek local contributions to make up the shortfall and support school programs and activities.
The effort is part of a statewide trend of seeking private sector revenue to offset education budget deficits. The education crisis in California has resulted in a sharp rise of on-campus bingo games, candy sales and other solutions which used to be regarded as supplemental. These are, it seems, becoming a revenue source that is absolutely essential. These efforts are fast spreading to other states as well.
It is hard to look such a gift horse in the mouth; indeed, many a legislator is no doubt grateful when such efforts move his feet back a bit from the fire. And perhaps all of us should be grateful that local citizens are so concerned about their schools that they are willing to dig into their own pockets--beyond the taxes they already pay--to make sure their children get a good education. But if this solution catches on, it could lead to disaster.
First, shoring up public education with private funds will probably work well in Orange County's more affluent districts. But what happens to schoolchildren in the less affluent parts of the county? Two results will be inescapable: a dramatic increase in the inequity of educational opportunity and a decline in the quality of existing educational services. Students whose parents can afford to make the foundation a viable private funding mechanism will get what they need; those whose parents can't, won't. The quality of public education will become a function of where you live.
Quite simply, the solution lays the foundation for an educational caste system based on ZIP codes. Districts with more affluent families generally will be able to offer music and the other arts, perhaps an extra guidance counselor, and a full basket of extracurricular and sports programs; districts where household income is considerably less will surely offer less.
Second, and more destabilizing to our society in the long run, is that solutions like Placentia-Yorba Linda's private foundation undermine the basic concept of public education. A broadly educated citizenry-- the foundation for our democracy and a vital economy--is a distinctly American idea. No small measure of the greatness of this country has been rooted in the decision to make universal education a right of all. But when school board members become, in effect, the directors of private foundations, the fundamental compact between the taxpayer and the broad, social aims of education is shattered. Education is turned into a instrument of elitism.
Third, there is a question of public morality as applied to public policy. Only two questions ever get asked anymore: Is what we want to do legal and does what we want to do create some conflict of interest (usually defined in money terms)?
Maybe the solution they've come up with in Placentia-Yorba Linda will work. They at least are striving to find solutions. Maybe they can save their schools by digging deeper. But can what works for the few really work for the many? Is it right? Does it serve the common good? The questions answer themselves. And the answers suggest that, in the long run, we--and our children--are going to be better off if we construct solutions to the problems in our schools in the public arena. That's where they belong.
Public school funding for our children should be the highest legislative and budgeting priority in the state. Education by ZIP code through private solutions will lead us inevitably in the wrong direction.