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Fund Raising's Dangerous Course

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Seven years ago, the school where I teach in Northern California held a couple of fund raisers to help build a small amphitheater. Back then, raising money was an occasional event designed to pay for extras that were beyond the scope of the regular school budget.

Not so anymore.

With the profusion of recent budget cuts, fund raising has become a major preoccupation at most California public schools. And much of the money, rather than going to extras such as an amphitheater, is now used to pay for basic programs and classroom supplies. It is a trend the rest of the nation would be wise not to follow.

If you are a parent of a school-age child in California, you are being asked to ante up at a level unprecedented in the history of public education. To generate enough money to keep our schools operating we hold pizza nights, spaghetti feeds, ice-cream socials, car washes, and bake sales; we sell popcorn, popsicles, candy, sweatshirts, magazines, and wrapping paper; we collect and sort receipts from supermarket chains ($100,000 in receipts and the school gets a computer); we hold walkathons, jogathons, and telethons.

And, of course, we still expect families to contribute to the P.T.A. and spend money at the school carnival.

In the past couple of years many schools have gone even further, asking parents to contribute a suggested fee per child. In spite of all this fund raising, many teachers dig ever deeper into their own pockets to keep their classes running.

Like my colleagues, I am very grateful for the financial support from fund raisers; I literally could not run my class without it. But I am reminded of the alcoholic whose family pays his bills, sheltering him just enough so he doesn't seek treatment.

The current volume of fund raising and the way in which the money is being spent raises serious questions that go to the heart of what we call public education.

When the money provided by the state is not enough to pay for basics, less affluent areas, where fund-raising efforts cannot generate as much money, find themselves at a crippling disadvantage.

In addition, since the success of our schools assures the well-being of everyone in our society, is it fair to ask parents of school-age children to pay a surcharge for the education of today's generation of kids?

Private schools have a word for this kind of fee: tuition. If we have come to the point where we need to charge public school parents tuition to pay for classroom supplies, let's at least call it by name and assess it fairly.

And finally, what is the message we give to our children about the importance of education when we ask them to sell popcorn to pay for the paper in their classroom?

We need to put some of the energy currently expended on baking cookies and serving pizzas into demanding changes in a system that is failing to provide for the most basic needs of educating our kids.

Public schools were founded on the idea of a free and equal education for everyone. When individual schools come to depend on fund raising simply to function, public education ceases to be either free or equal.

John Moir has been a middle-grades teacher for 14 years. He is the author of Just in Case: Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Self Help (Chronicle Books) and writes a monthly review column on young-adult books for the Santa Cruz Sentinel in California.

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