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Prop. 13 steals from our children

KARIN KLEIN is a Times editorial writer.

I WAS INVITED to a fantasy weekend getaway in early September. Fantasy, indeed. The hostess, who clearly has no school-age children, is holding her event two days after school starts, easily the busiest weekend of any parent’s year.

I’ll be filling out enough forms to qualify for a mortgage, agreeing via signature that I have received and read inch-thick official school-policy documents (I have officially decided that reading the title page qualifies) and pulling apart racks at office-supply stores in pursuit of required items on school-equipment lists (one year, Pink Pearl brand erasers were the only type one teacher found acceptable; another year, it was a $79 scientific calculator).

But mostly I’ll be writing checks for all the things that public school doesn’t pay for anymore.

I was sifting through my check register the other day and here’s how this academic year has added up:

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The required locker fee was $5, then $200 for cross-country booster fee, $9 for a vocabulary book (since when do schools make us pay for textbooks?), $240 for bus transportation for my youngest kid, $100 for drama booster fee, $70 for dance booster fee, $45 for associated student body fee, $150 for track booster fee, $23 for required summer-reading books, $50 toward grad night -- I’ve written more than $800 in checks for a free and public education.

That doesn’t count various donations or incidentals. At least one spending decision was easy -- I’m boycotting the PTA until it starts holding meetings when parents with regular working hours can attend.

Schools have needed help like this ever since Proposition 13 brought the California public school system from nationally admired to roundly pitied. But an interesting change has occurred just over the last few years. What once were called school donations have been relabeled fees. Donations, after all, mean you’re going above and beyond in your generosity. “Fee” implies that you’d better pull out your wallet. Not that schools would or legally could force payment. But neither are they advertising in large print that these fees are completely voluntary.

The shock was palpable at the meeting for cross-country team parents last year, when coaches announced the $200 “booster” fee. (When checkbooks are involved, meetings are usually at night, when people who earn the money to have checkbooks can attend.) Many parents had already “donated” a similar amount for “academic boosters” when they got a fundraising flier at school registration. Figuring they’d done their good-citizen thing, they never imagined that athletic boosterism takes multiple forms -- and multiple checks.

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BUT WRITE EXTRA checks they did, and do. In a town like Laguna Beach -- though it’s not without impoverished families -- school officials know they can count on most parents to subsidize the extras.

There’s no point in getting angry -- except maybe at people whose houses are worth $2 million but who think that because they’ve owned them for 30 years, they should balk at paying more than $750 or so in property taxes on them.

No teacher is stuffing checks into her pockets to go out for a night on the town. The drama teacher gives up evenings and weekends to coach and coax his teenage charges into eye-popping performances that outdo many professional productions -- and all he asks is enough money to construct decent sets and rent costumes. The drama teacher and cross-country coach teach a full day of classes, and then after school inspire kids into embracing fitness, grace and teamwork, and choreograph them for success. No child at our schools is ever asked to go without because of parents who cannot pay -- donations ensure that all are covered.

No, we parents are happy to do what we can for our teachers and our kids. The problem is in where we have drawn the line in defining “our” kids. In the post-Proposition 13 era, that means our offspring -- or at its broadest, the children in our tightly defined communities.

Our generosity of spirit, though it embraces words like “donation” and “fee,” stops short of the phrase “equitable property taxation” -- the only phrase that would provide an enriched and equal education for all “our” kids.


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