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In Budget Crunch, Calif. Foundations Supporting Basics

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As a budget crisis grips California and its schools, many of the state's 150 local education foundations are moving to refocus their energies from reform to the exigencies of teacher pay and day-to-day operating expenses.

The foundations, which met in San Francisco last week, raised $13.3 million last year, much of which was used to prod reform through pilot programs and teacher mini-grants.

Given the anticipated cuts in state education spending, however, "There will inevitably be increased pressure to support the budgets of the public schools," said Virgil Roberts, chairman of the board of the Los Angeles Educational Partnership.

That pressure, observers say, threatens to raise serious equity issues while moving foundations away from their reform mission.

Many of the foundations actually had their origin in an earlier funding crisis for education, when Proposition 13 and other government-spending caps of the late 1970's and the economic recession of the early 1980's combined to create severe budget problems for districts throughout the state.

As economic times improved, however, the foundations began seeing themselves as agents of change committed to funding innovative projects, said Magi Young, coordinator of the California Consortium of Education Foundations, which sponsored last week's conference.

Already, a substantial proportion of the money raised by the education foundations has been diverted to causes for which it was not originally intended.

The Los Angeles Educational Partnership, for instance, has long provided grants for innovative programming with its grant budget, which currently stands at $1.8 million. The idea has been to back experimental projects that, if successful, can be transferred to the general school-district budget.

But, according to fund officials, budget realities are hindering that process.

"We've had to rethink what institutionalization means," Peggy Funkhouser, the partnership's president and executive director, said.

Likewise, the San Francisco Education Fund--which raised nearly $1.6 million last school year--may either have to refinance pet projects that had already been turned over to the district or watch them fall to the budget ax.

"[Superintendent Ramon] Cortines is saying they will be closing down many of the improvements we've made over the last years," said Susan C. Wilkes, the fund's executive director. "That makes the work of the San Francisco Education Fund even more important. We've got to try to help preserve some of these projects."

For other foundations, though, the budget crunch is not spurring a major shift because they have always seen themselves primarily as fundraising arms for their school boards. Particularly in affluent areas, these organizations have concentrated on raising money that either goes directly into the district budget or funds the superintendent's "wish list."

After supplying their schools with such things as computers, maps, and field trips, the groups now also are paying for teachers.

Laguna Beach's School Power foundation, for example, annually finances the full salary of a science teacher and half the salary of an art teacher, according to Lucinda Prewitt, a member of the foundation's board of directors. The foundation raised $383,468 last year.

Last summer, when Beverly Hills voters rejected a tax proposal, the district announced 20 teachers would be layed off. The Beverly Hills Education Foundation responded by raising $100,000, which was immediately used to rehire two of the teachers, said the group'sel10lpresident, Bob Perlberg. All told, the foundation gave $550,000 to the board of education last year.

"We're a foundation that exists merely to provide as many funds as we can generate for the district," Mr. Perlberg asserted. "We don't get involved in making education decisions."

Some analysts see several potential pitfalls in the foundations' growing emphasis on supporting regular school budgets.

First, there is the danger that increased private support for the public schools will undermine efforts to equalize school funding, since wealthy areas are able to raise far more money than are districts whose residents are mostly poor.

Secondly, observers say, legislators and budget officials could begin relying on private funds instead of addressing the fundamental finance problems that have plagued California schools.

Finally, the analysts suggest, it is possible that some people may write checks to their local foundations rather than support the tax levels needed to provide adequate revenues to the schools.

"I don't want to see people write a check, then say, 'I did my part. I don't have to pay higher taxes for the schools now,"' Ms. Funkhouser said. "There's a major risk of that."

But others say such concerns exaggerate the effectiveness of public-education foundations. Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University, notes that even the most successful foundations have never raised more than 5 percent of their districts' budgets and that most are closer to 2 percent.

"This is a [public-school] system that raises $22 billion a year," he said. "You'd have to raise a lot of money to destabilize that."

Foundation officials also express hope that increased concern for education will translate into more--not less--political pressure. As donors see their dollars barely making a dent in the fundamental problems of education finance, they may conclude that higher taxes and a greater public commitment are the only alternative.

"The [budget] crisis is really to our advantage," said Lois Swanson, special-projects chairman of the St. Helena Public Schools Foundation. "The public is becoming more aware, and they're wanting to help."

As for equity concerns, Caroline Boitano, board president of the California Consortium of Education Foundations, admitted that she once feared a lawsuit challenging education foundations. Those fears have now subsided, she says, in part because of the relatively small amount of money involved.

But others warn that the little extras provided by affluent foundations are not insignificant.

"Do I believe a 5 percent difference is going to affect the way people read, write, and add? Probably not," said Lewis Solmon, dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of California at Los Angeles. "But will it make a school marginally better? It probably would."

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