Sunday, May 05, 2013


by Patrice Apodaca, Newport Beach Daily Pilot  |

May 3, 2013  ::  Underlying all the many issues in education is one big, persistent problem: income inequality.

From preschool to college, from test scores to technology access, socioeconomic status is the single most important determinant of student opportunity and achievement. This has long been, and probably will always be the case, but it hasn't always been addressed or even fully acknowledged.

Recently, however, some bold, yet vastly different, responses to the have/have-not problem have emerged, each bringing fresh controversy while challenging our ideas about how far our public school system should go to try to engineer solutions.

First, there is Gov. Jerry Brown's fervent advocacy of a so-called weighted student formula for determining how much state money schools receive. Under his proposal, those schools serving disadvantaged students would receive proportionately more funding than schools in relatively affluent areas. The reasoning is simple: Poor kids need the money more.

Then there is the highly publicized effort by the Santa Monica-Malibu school district to redirect money raised through parent fundraising efforts from its schools in wealthier areas to its lower-income campuses. The proposal has created such a furor that some parents have launched a secessionist movement to split the district in two.

The income inequality issue is even rearing its head amid the fiery debate over teacher evaluations. Many argue that using student test scores to determine teacher effectiveness is unfair because those scores will only improve so much amid the negative effects of economic instability. Students generally don't test well when they come to school hungry.

All these pieces in play are of significant interest here in Newport-Mesa. Our own district has been cut to the bone through a series of budget cuts and remains in relatively sound fiscal health compared with many other school systems. Yet the situation remains precarious on the home front as lawmakers rev up to negotiate Brown's plan.

What's more, Newport-Mesa is also a district with even more stark income disparities within its borders than Santa Monica-Malibu. Money raised through foundations and parent teacher associations helped keep many programs alive at some of our campuses during the past several years. As the debate rages over Santa Monica-Malibu's fundraising redistribution plan, it's not unthinkable that a district like ours could become a target of similar efforts to share the wealth among schools.

At the very least, tough decisions will continue to be made regarding how to allocate scarce resources in what continues to be a financially desperate time in education.

Brown has cast himself as a warrior for civil rights with his plan to give more money to some districts at the expense of others.

"Whatever we have to bring to bear in this battle, we're bringing it," he told a group of reporters last month. "I am going to fight as hard as I can."

He'll have a fight all right. Opponents of his proposal are assuming battle-ready positions, arguing that everyone in public education throughout California has suffered immensely and that taking away funding from some districts while they're still struggling could prove ruinous.

Brown's plan has also come under fire because some of the districts that stand to lose funding aren't necessarily "wealthy," they just lack the concentration of poverty which is characteristic of those scheduled to gain money.

Others rightly note that the governor's scheme does nothing to fix the overarching problems afflicting our public schools, which remain near the bottom of the barrel in per-student spending among all states. They ask: Shouldn't we aim higher, for lasting, comprehensive solutions to California's education funding debacle and the persistent poverty that traps some students into low achievement?

But let's be real — that's not going to happen. So for now, we resign ourselves to fighting over the scraps in our malnourished education system.

If Brown's plan were enacted as proposed, the net effect on Newport-Mesa would be exactly nothing, or as Paul Reed, deputy superintendent and chief business official put it, "a zero sum game."

"We'd be happy with that," Reed said. "There are, however, several different permutations of the proposal now live in Sacramento. Some of them would hurt N-M. None of them would benefit us."

Despite Brown's vow to fight ferociously, Reed worries that the governor will ultimately cave to compromises that would trade off programs benefiting Newport-Mesa to preserve the core of his plan.

If Reed's comments seem tinged with resignation, you could hardly blame him.

No one could argue that Brown's goal of helping our neediest students is wrong or bad, or that he isn't putting his own reputation on the line for a cause he believes in. But the effort does seem woefully insufficient given the huge problems afflicting education. And that districts like ours would consider an outcome of not losing more money a victory is a sorry testament to just how bad the situation has become.

There's a lot of talk these days about redistributing education dollars. Whether it's from wealthy PTA parents or our stretched state coffers, it's a sad state of affairs when the biggest idea under consideration is to ask ships with gaping holes to give up their life boats. It's time to rescue the whole bloody fleet.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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