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Private Funding Raises Questions Of Equity

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The idea had such an appealing, '90s ring to it: Rather than wait for their school board to pay for a new high school auditorium, residents of Bowie, Md., would rally together and raise the money themselves. After all, the proposed auditorium had languished on the list of capital

projects in the Prince George's County school system since 1976. With budgets tight and new classrooms the school board's highest building priority, Bowie High School's boosters could see that their cherished project was going nowhere. So they decided to step in and do it themselves.

But when some board members got wind of the civic group's plans, they cried foul: Allowing a private group to pay for an expensive project at one school would widen the gap between poor and affluent schools throughout the district, something several members felt they couldn't let happen.

The situation in Bowie highlights a quandary facing a growing number of parents and educators nationwide: When does financial support from parents and community groups cross the line to create unacceptable inequities in schools? The question, although not a new one, has recently become more pressing.

Local school budgets are besieged on several fronts: proposed federal funding cuts, school-finance litigation, statewide tax limitations, and voter resistance to local tax increases. At the same time, parents are being urged to get more involved in education. Allowing parents and communities to raise money for school improvements, many politicians and policymakers assert, can keep middle- and upper-middle-class children in the public schools. "If parents say, 'If I can't get this kind of program, then I'm leaving,' then everybody loses,'' explains Delabian Rice-Thurston, executive director of Parents United, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization.

The problem, critics argue, is that schools with well-off, knowledgeable parents can raise far more money than those in low-income neighborhoods where families struggle just to make ends meet.

In Bowie, the controversy centers on a project that would benefit one school. But similar questions have been raised about the growth of private, tax-exempt foundations created to raise money for entire districts. First emerging in California in the late 1970s after a property-tax rebellion, these foundations have now spread to more than 2,500 districts nationwide. Many work hand in hand with booster or alumni groups at individual schools.

In a district with 2,000 students and a $10 million budget, typically only about $300,000 is discretionary, says Dan McCormick, a Michigan consultant who helps districts set up such foundations. In such a district, a foundation can raise between $80,000 and $120,000 a year--enough to boost spending significantly on technology, library materials, arts programs, or teacher mini-grants. But not enough money, McCormick contends, to create serious inequities. "You can have things you wouldn't have without a foundation--all the way from playground equipment to high-tech equipment--but will it destroy a balance of the basic delivery of education?'' he says. "I've never seen it occur.''

Even without dramatic effects, however, some critics worry that private foundations and fund-raising efforts can focus taxpayers' attention on their own schools instead of on the needs of the larger public school system. And if private foundations begin to underwrite core educational programs, they could become an equity issue in statewide school-finance litigation. Paul Trachtenberg, a professor at Rutgers Law School in Newark, N.J., says states may have an obligation to match money raised in wealthy districts with expenditures in poorer areas that lack such support. Trachtenberg, who is the founder of the Education Law Center, says one foundation in New Jersey, while raising less than $30,000, has paid for microscopes and computers. "That sounds to me like fairly mainstream educational equipment,'' he says.

In addition to California and New Jersey, the foundations have spread to such states as Alabama, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Texas--all of which have wrestled with ways to distribute money for schools more equitably. And in Florida, where soaring enrollment has outstripped the state's ability to pay for schools, 53 of 67 counties have foundations that seek partnerships with businesses.

Some districts have strict guidelines for how supplemental money can be used. In Montgomery County, Md., for example, such funds cannot be used to hire extra personnel during the regular school day. And any materials and equipment that are purchased for schools become district property.

In 1991, parents in Winchester, Mass., who were frustrated with their state's strict limits on local property-tax increases set up the Winchester Foundation for Educational Excellence. Today, the foundation raises enough to distribute $40,000 in mini-grants to district teachers each year. It will not pay for teacher stipends, but it does pick up the tab for consultants and extra teaching materials. Foundation money has paid for an inflatable planetarium, an artist-in-residence program, and a graphic-arts center at the high school. "The biggest impact,'' says Judy King, a Winchester parent and foundation board member, "has been the spirit of support that teachers feel from the community.''

In Bowie, residents recently formed a tax-exempt organization called the Bowie Regional Art Vision Association, or BRAVA, to raise money for the proposed $5 million auditorium. Part of the debate there stems from BRAVA's intention to seek money from the city, the state of Maryland, and the regional parks commission for the project.

But school board member Kenneth Johnson argues that the parks and planning commission should give money to the entire 112,000-student county system, not just to one community. If the school board allowed these types of fund-raising projects, he says, "in some areas, we would have class sizes down to 10 students per class, and there would not be a reason for them to support initiatives to provide revenue for the county at large.''

Board member Verna Teasdale doesn't see it that way. She believes the auditorium would benefit the entire community and students at surrounding schools. "We have to be very, very clear,'' Teasdale says. "We either want the community and businesses to come together to work in the best interest of kids, or we don't.''

Eleanor Minor, a vocal-music teacher at Bowie High School who stages her drama productions in the cafeteria for lack of better space, is bewildered by the whole controversy. "We just thought this was something everyone would jump on the bandwagon for,'' she says.

--Ann Bradley

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