A lesson for Woodbridge Elementary parents


EARLIER THIS month, the Baltimore County Board of Education refused to let parents in Woodbridge Valley, a community near Woodlawn, pay $20,000 to rent a portable classroom -- the first step, they hoped, toward converting their elementary into the county's first kindergarten through eighth-grade school. It was the right decision, but I doubt the many parents with candy bars and pizza kits waiting in the refrigerator to be sold understand why.

Why, at a time when schools desperately seek parental involvement and use donations for everything from stadium lights to computers, should parents not be allowed to help buy the kind of school they want?

School rules

School and county officials never explained why, other than making vague noises about about how building renovations are basic services, not "extras." That won't make much sense to parents who are buying computers, books and classroom supplies. While these may not qualify as basics -- in many cases parents are adding to what schools have provided to meet minimum requirements -- they believe them to be so.

More importantly, the trend nationwide is toward giving parents a greater say in their children's education through community-based schools, charter schools and vouchers. Most of us with children welcome this trend. In this context, we are bound to ask why our energy, influence and resources shouldn't extend beyond jungle gyms to more substantive items.

Further complicating matters is the principle that all schools should be equitably equipped, funded and staffed. Because parents in some communities are more active than others, fund raising means some schools will have more computers and nicer band uniforms than others.

This troubles some educators who argue that donations should be distributed equally among schools. Some area systems have tried this, with dismal results. Parents, quite naturally, want their efforts to benefit their kids.

The concept of equity as we have come to know it is unrealistic. It's impossible, even within a single school, to ensure that every child gets the same educational experience. Some teachers will always be better than others, some communities will always be more supportive. It's unfair -- and counterproductive from a societal standpoint -- to deny those who want to enhance their own children's education some opportunity to do so.

Equity should mean that school systems determine what every child needs to learn and provide every child with the resources necessary to do that. It must not be up to parents, for example, to buy math books or pay the salaries of reading teachers. All taxpayers share responsibility for providing kids with a basic education, because we all benefit when they graduate knowing how to read and write.

Computer bonus

Beyond the basics, however, there's no reason why parents shouldn't have latitude in tailoring their schools, even in substantial ways. Parents at Baltimore County's Fort Garrison Elementary spent $100,000 to equip a computer lab. School officials had no problem with that since all schools are scheduled to get a technology upgrade; the parents simply preferred to do it more quickly and lavishly themselves.

Bricks and mortar and personnel are much grayer areas, but parents may be able to contribute there as well -- so long as what they want to do doesn't involve educational policy decisions or commit taxpayers to long-term, continuing expenses. These are big ifs; parental contributions often come with strings attached.

Parents who buy extra computers may expect the school system to provide a computer lab teacher, too.

Some communities have volunteered to update textbooks more frequently than expected. But the choice of textbooks is a curriculum decision, not something determined by donations.

The trouble with the Woodbridge proposal was that parents sought to use their $20,000 to leverage a major change in educational philosophy (the school board has yet to endorse K-8 schools) and to secure a financial commitment from the school system for a multimillion dollar renovation. Changing Woodbridge from an elementary to a K-8 school would require an expanded cafeteria, new science labs, additional playing fields -- to be paid for by county taxpayers.

Such policy and spending decisions must be made by school and elected officials accountable to the public. They must be based on what the public agrees it wants and on what is affordable. That is the line parents who care enough to sell wrapping paper and reach into their pockets must not cross.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 6/28/98

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