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Private efforts funding public schools

Stone-faced parents gathered at the Ottoson Middle School library in Arlington one recent morning looking determined and exhausted.

"We have all spent so much time in the last six months working to find money to restore what's been cut," said Jeff Carver, who has two daughters at Ottoson in grades 6 and 9.

Parents in Arlington who raised $275,000 after a Proposition 2 1/2 override attempt failed are now wondering where to draw the line. How much should public school budgets rely on private fund-raising?

It's a question being posed across the country, as cash-strapped districts turn to parents and local education foundations for help with budget items from textbooks to teacher salaries.

"We are seeing more spending from education foundations on core instruction areas than we have ever seen in the past -- and that concerns us," said Howie Schaffer, spokesman for the Public Education Network, a Washington, D.C., reform group whose 87 local members raised $190 million for schools in 2003.

Public schools should be publicly funded, most would agree. The debate centers on what a public education should look like. Ten years after Massachusetts embraced education reform, and as requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act kick in, it's tempting to see public education as the fulfillment of legal mandates and the attainment of passing test scores.

Listen to parents and students in Arlington and you hear what some might view as sob stories about cuts to art, health, drama, library, Italian, and gifted programs, among others. Nate Cubeta, 13, says that with 28 students in his Latin class now, there's no time for the discussions he used to enjoy. Seventh-grader Michelle Rosie, 12, has three extra study halls because drama and health class were eliminated.

Sometimes, she said, "I literally have nothing to do."

Geoffrey Gee said his son, Jordan, no longer has art and hasn't totally understood that there are nine more kids in his class, after three third grades at Stratton Elementary School in Arlington were reduced to two. "I don't know what he's missing, but he's obviously missing something," said Gee.

Unlike budget items or test scores, which have a nice concrete ring, when children say school is less fun or enriching, there is no way to tally the qualitative blow. Good enough in one community might not pass elsewhere.

Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington, D.C., said provisions of No Child Left Behind aim to guarantee every child a good, solid education. Anything extra, he said, should be up to voters -- or fund-raising parents.

It might be, said Finn, "that the voters in a town like Arlington are willing to spring for economy class and the parents who want business class for their kids will have to shell out -- or move to another town, where they believe in business class."

This suggests a worrisome shift in expectations, Schaffer said, from a goal of excellence for all to a state in which "now educational adequacy sounds delightful."

Even as local property tax is viewed as an unfair way to fund education, it represents reality given the state and federal mandates that don't come with enough money attached. Arlington Selectman Charlie Lyons said his community must find a new approach that takes into account taxpayers' ability to pay.

"Some people are income poor and property rich and said, `We can't afford it,' " said Lyons. Others might simply not want to pay for a service they don't use. Public education is an act of community and public faith, a pact between those who use the public schools and those who don't.

The gamble is that making school engaging, which might cost an extra $400 a year in taxes, will add to public life, if not real estate values. But how do you sell something as intangible as educational quality?

"A lot of people don't want to support the public schools any longer. They don't feel like they should, and that is a real moral issue," said Arlington School Committee chairwoman Suzanne Baratta Owayda, noting the pressure to pay for programs with user fees.

Judi Bohn, Arlington Public Schools partnership coordinator, wonders if the town will lose appeal without excellent schools. "Are we going to end up in a place where people say, `Oh, Arlington is a great place to live, but you have to send your kid to private school,' " she asked.

Arlington parents want to compare their schools with nearby top-performing districts, including Lexington, Winchester, Belmont, and Newton.

So parents are meeting in living rooms and plotting ways to fund programs, said Carver, whose wife is launching a drive to raise $25,000 for the Academic Challenge & Enrichment program axed by budget cuts.

The breakup of parents into splinter fund-raising groups creates an awkward situation. Arlington's superintendent of schools, Kathleen Donovan, said she took the $275,000 raised over the summer because it fit her funding priorities and she did the hiring. She also would take $25,000 toward the gifted program because it is on her priority list.

But even as she vows "any little bit I can do for students, I will do," Donovan doesn't want parent fund-raising dictating school offerings.

At Ottoson Middle School, principal Stavroula Bouris is impressed by parent volunteerism and fund-raising, but also worries. "At what point will they say enough is enough?" she said. "You heard some parents say they are exhausted, frustrated, angry."

In Brookline, private fund-raising is powerful, particularly at Brookline High School, where a 21st Century Fund supports $350,000 a year in programs.

Stephen Maurer, executive director of the fund, said despite impressive fund-raising (more than $2 million since 1998), they are strict. "We don't fund things we think the school committee should pay for," he said, adding the focus is on pilot programs like a yearlong "Facing History" symposium with speakers and projects for 50 seniors.

But some foundations in other towns do fund some of the basics. Pam Eisenberg, president of the Northborough Education Foundation, said they just spent $6,000 on fourth-grade social studies textbooks, and there is now talk of undertaking a larger project, like a school library renovation. "The education foundation can help raise money to plug some of the holes," she said.

In Arlington, Julie Dunn, president of the Arlington Partners in Education Foundation, doesn't know what the future holds. Will there be another override, this one successful? Will parents again scramble to raise large amounts for basic school needs?

"You can't fund a school with emergency private fund-raising," she said. "The first time it's an emergency; the second time it is a planned event."

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