Monday, April 10, 2017

Santa Monica PTA and Equality

I thought that this story coming out of Santa Monica was interesting because it obliquely and not so obliquely touches on a lot of the fault lines of modern life-race, class, gender, citizenship status. It also reminded me, as many social programs are likely to do, of Kurt Vonnegut's dystopic satire Harrison Bergeron, in which equality is not only the law of the land but is affirmatively guaranteed and vigorously enforced by action of the government. In this story equality of outcome, not equal opportunity, is what is mandated. So no one is allowed to have more or less of anything than anyone else. Smarter people have electrodes placed in their brain to disrupt their thinking. Attractive people must wear prosthetics to make themselves less good looking. Strong people must have weights attached so that they can't take "unfair" advantage of their strength. And the Handicapper-in-General is licensed to arrest or execute anyone who tries to use their natural talents.

Broadly speaking, Vonnegut was a man of the left. But the Harrison Bergeron story, which today reads as if it were written by a right wing libertarian, remains a prophetic piece of sci-fi. So this story out of California was intriguing.

SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Of all the inequalities between rich and poor public schools, one of the more glaring divides is PTA fund-raising, which in schools with well-heeled parents can generate hundreds of thousands of dollars a year or more. Several years ago, the Santa Monica-Malibu school board came up with a solution: Pool most donations from across the district and distribute them equally to all the schools. 

This has paid big benefits to the needier schools in this wealthy district, like the Edison Language Academy in Santa Monica, where half the children qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The campus is decorated with psychedelic paintings of civil rights icons such as Cesar Chavez and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the work of the school’s art teacher, Martha Ramirez Oropeza, whose salary is paid by the pooled contributions. That money has also funded the school’s choral program, teacher aides, a science lab and a telescope. 

The funding program is considered a national model, and has many enthusiastic supporters. But for some locals it is a sore point that has helped fuel a long-simmering secession movement in which Malibu — more solidly affluent than Santa Monica — would create its own district, allowing it to keep all of its donations in its own schools.

The donation-balancing system was put in place in 2011 by the district’s crusading former superintendent, Sandra Lyon, and the elected school board. Malibu parents — and a few from Santa Monica — objected to the change, saying they worried that affluent families would stop giving altogether or flee to private schools. At one rowdy school board meeting covered by Malibu Patch, a local news website, a Malibu mother said the plan would “bring everybody to a mediocre middle ground that serves nobody.” 

Parents can still donate to their own schools to cover expenses like campus beautification, technology and field trips. But those who wish to help pay for teachers’ salaries or school-day science and arts programs must now donate to the Santa Monica-Malibu Education Foundation, which redistributes the money across schools. Total donations — between $4 million and $5 million annually — did not appear to drop in the first couple of years, according to tax returns for the foundation and 15 school-level PTAs, though more recent records are not available. But just 21 percent of Malibu families have donated to the central fund this school year, compared with 41 percent of Santa Monica families, according to foundation data through February.

Although people are or should be equal under the law of course no one is truly equal in the sense of having identical outcomes. Some people are born to rich parents. Some women marry rich men and decide not to work outside of the home. Some people are taller than other people. Some men marry women far more attractive than the average. Some men marry women with smarts/wealth and live off their wives. Some people are smarter than the average. Others work harder. Some people have innate gifts for science or music or math or...well you get the idea. We all have our own particular set of skills and interests. Your talents are not mine. My interests are not yours. PTA involvement and donation is a local and voluntary activity. If someone in another school doesn't have the time or resources or interests to be involved in their local PTA I'm not sure that the state can do much about this. There are some things that might be beyond the state's ability to solve. For example, children of higher social classes learn more words earlier in life. Their parents talk to them more and use a more varied vocabulary. This gives these children an educational advantage which can later be measured on SAT/LSAT/GRE scores and grades. 

I think it is legitimate and even sometimes necessary for the state to tell richer citizens that in order to attempt to rectify these disparities the state is going to tax them to create special pre-school programs to help poor children to catch up. But I don't think it would be legitimate for the state to tell richer parents that any time or money they spend playing with or talking to their young children they must also spend with someone else's child. Do you see the difference? 

It's not a bad thing or selfish to have a primary interest in your child. And it's not a bad thing for an individual to donate their time and resources to their local school. If you think that property and income taxes should be higher to help those in need, fine. I might even agree with that. But taking a voluntary donation and using it for something different than the donor agreed to seems not quite fair. To me that would be like writing a check to the NRDC and finding out that the government gave 40% of that check to the Wounded Warrior Project because its support was flagging. I may think that the Wounded Warrior Project is a fine cause. But, with my money, I wanted to support the NRDC.

What do you think of the Santa Monica situation?

Are the complaining parents just selfish?

Are the richer areas justified in talking of leaving the district?

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