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Funding Schools Equitably

Equalizing funding between rich and poor schools is an important step on the road to shrinking the academic achievement gap. Nevertheless, the strategy is meeting stiff resistance in California, where Gov. Jerry Brown wants to take some funding away from rich districts and give it to poor ones ("School Brawl in California," The Wall Street Journal, Apr. 30).

But sometimes the battle erupts within the same district. The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District serves as a case in point. Located on the coast between the ocean and the mountains, the district encompasses some of the most scenic and valuable land in California. However, there is a mismatch between the two communities. With a population of 13,000, Malibu's residents have a median income of $133,000 a year. In contrast, Santa Monica has a population of 90,000, whose residents have a median income of $67,000 a year. Because of their higher income, parents in Malibu have had no trouble collecting about $2,100 per student a year to pay for music and art programs, as well as for a marine science lab.

Recognizing that this money gives students in Malibu an advantage over students in Santa Monica, the school board wants to distribute the funds to other district campuses ("Efforts to split Santa Monica-Malibu district gains new traction," Los Angeles Times, Apr. 28). Angered by the proposal, Malibu parents have threatened to secede from the district to establish their own.

Although it's hard to generate sympathy for two such affluent communities, the battle involves several conflicting principles that are worthy of consideration. On one hand, it's not fair to expect students in Santa Monica to achieve at the same level as students in Malibu when the former are denied the same resources. I'm not saying that equal funding will guarantee equal outcomes. Not by a long shot. There are other factors that play a powerful role. However, money does affect educational quality. If it doesn't, why have Malibu parents engaged in fund raising?

On the other hand, parents in Malibu can't be entirely blamed for wanting to put their own children first. I know this makes them sound selfish, but it's a fact of life. For example, politicians have long enrolled their own children in successful private schools in Washington D.C. rather than enroll them in abysmal public schools there. Critics charge that decision makes them hypocrites, but they can't be faulted for avoiding sacrificing their children on the altar of fairness. Moral principles have unavoidable practical consequences.

It's too soon to know how the secession movement will play out. But I expect to see variations of the Santa Monica-Malibu drama repeated in other school districts across the country where funding is blatantly unequal.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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