Parents are stuck digging deep for public school


I made two trips to my daughter’s public school on Wednesday, one to volunteer in her classroom and one to get shaken down for money. Either we moms and dads pony up an average of $1,000 per student by May, we were told by leaders of the parents group, or our beloved neighborhood school was likely to lose resources crucial to our children.

Guilt is a powerful motivator, not that it works very well on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger or legislators. In January, the great state of California got an F from Education Week magazine, which put us at 47th in the nation in per-pupil funding when figured as a percentage of personal income. And that was before Sacramento announced billions of dollars in additional education cuts, which has prompted thousands of notices statewide on potential layoffs of teachers and other staff.

Let’s start, however, with my volunteering effort at Ivanhoe Elementary, which is in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Supt. Ray Cortines is looking at having to slash roughly $700 million districtwide from the budget. He said it’s not clear how much he’ll get from the temporary federal stimulus package, but he knows it won’t fill the gap. Which probably means we’ll have larger class sizes and fewer employees, and an even greater need for parents to step up and volunteer.


I’m a bit of a laggard at Ivanhoe. Other parents, including my wife, put in far more time.

I was feeling guilty about that and signed up for an hour as a classroom aide to teacher Missy Morris, who, I can now say with authority, is vastly underpaid.

Ms. Morris divided the class into four small groups, two of which worked on their own. She took a third group and I took the fourth, and my instructions were to help the little rascals assemble a book using construction paper, crayons and glue.

Remember the guy on “The Ed Sullivan Show” who balanced spinning plates on sticks, running from one to the other to keep an entire kitchen from crashing down on his head?

That’s how I felt.

I had kids on top of the worktable, kids under the table, kids yelling, kids determined to put an eye out with a stick and numerous fiascoes involving glue. Some of the glue tubes wouldn’t squeeze, some gushed, and we had a spirited fight over one of the better tubes.

While this was happening, I glanced at Ms. Morris, who was able to instantly control her group with a simple clap of the hands, a trick that didn’t work for me. I managed to survive the hour without any 911 calls, and would like to hereby say, to a certain teacher who honors the profession every day:

Thank you, Ms. Morris.

Thank you, Ms. Morris.

Thank you, Ms. Morris.

My return trip to Ivanhoe was harrowing in a different way.

About 100 parents gathered in the auditorium to hear the same message we heard a year ago:

All major credit cards accepted.

This was my second such meeting at Ivanhoe, and the price of academic excellence -- Ivanhoe ranks 14th out of 484 LAUSD elementary schools -- is going up fast. Last year we were asked to donate on average $500 per student, and this year it will take twice as much to hold on to programs and personnel the district is not expected to fund.

If parents can come up with $327,000, the school will be able to keep three academic coaches who, among other things, take the pressure off teachers in the overcrowded fourth and fifth grades. It would also pay for P.E. coaches, three kindergarten aides, library resources, computer replacement and technology support.

As I heard the pitch, along with the testaments to Ivanhoe and how lucky we are to have a great school that’s been a neighborhood institution since 1889 -- yes, I said 1889 -- I was thinking the same thing I thought when I heard the pitch a year ago:

We really are lucky, because the school is so good, and because many of us are able to fork over a little extra, even in a recession. But what about the vast majority of schools that aren’t as good and don’t have as many parents who can write checks?

Friends of Ivanhoe offered some salve for that guilt. Nearby schools, we were told, get extra funding based on lower family income.

This being a column about education, I’m guaranteed to field the usual raft of e-mail from those who say the simple answer to budget shortfalls is to stop admitting illegal immigrants to our schools. So let me say once again that it’s a little more complicated than that.

Until the federal government produces the desperately needed reforms, we’re stuck with what we’ve got, and it’s probably cheaper to educate all children who live here than pay the costs of not doing so.

I’m also sure to hear from those who say more money doesn’t necessarily mean better schools, which is true, and it’s also fair to say we’ve got some burned-out educators and bloated bureaucracies across the state.

But why is California content to spend roughly $2,400 less per pupil than the national average, particularly when an educated workforce is the only hope for a stronger economic future?

Why have public school parents been forced to become full-time fundraisers, selling everything from cupcakes and candy to advertising space on the school fence?

And why are we paying hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out inept financial institutions and the boobs and scoundrels who ran and regulated them, while putting the squeeze on schools that might produce a smarter generation of future leaders?

I don’t think any of the parents at Ivanhoe will hold their breath waiting for those answers. In the auditorium Wednesday night, one dad, Erik Grammer, held up a check as the first donation and said, yeah, times are tough for a lot of people. But he realized he was paying $1,000 a year for cable TV, which he just canceled.

I wrote a check because I believe in the school and my daughter loves it, and, as Friends of Ivanhoe pointed out, private schools in the area charge between $12,500 and $26,800.

I just wish we weren’t catching up so fast.