Search for school funds must go on

June 27, 1997

When I first heard Washington County Commissioner Jim Wade's proposal to charge parents $135 for every child they have in school, I thought it was a purposely outrageous suggestion designed to start a serious discussion of school funding.

Kind of like Jonathan Swift's "Modest Proposal" of 1729, which proposed deaing with the problem of poverty by cooking and eating poor people's children. But Swift was a satirist; Wade apparently is serious about that and his latest idea: charging parents for students' textbooks.

Both fee plans are questionable under the Maryland constitution and state law, but that doesn't mean Wade (or whoever) should abandon the search for new sources of revenue. Based on a quick look around this past week, there are plenty of jurisdictions out there that have come up with ways (other than property or income taxes) to fund their school systems.


In truth, Wade's school book proposal isn't indisputably illegal. The July 1996 issue of School Business Affairs, sent to me by the National School Board Association, describes it as one a series of user fees that have been imposed by systems around the country.

The authors warn that revenue potential is small compared to the entire budget and that user fees have a "controversial and highly litigious nature." In other words, the idea of paying user fees on top of taxes upsets people, who tend to file lawsuits.

But even if that weren't true, charging parents for schoolbooks would present other problems. Who would sell new books? If school personnel had to do it, it would take time away from other duties. If the job was farmed out to a private contractor, costs would be higher. And there would be those parents who truly couldn't afford books (as opposed to those who, in Wade's view, can afford it, but choose to waste their money on stuff like cigarettes.) There would have to be waivers, based on income, which someone would have to check.

And who would buy the books at year's end? The schools, or do parents have to try to sell them to other parents?

No, I'd rather see the county try some of these other areas, including:

Special license plates. The Herald-Mail has previously written about this idea, dreamed up by Candy Ausherman of Frederick County. Ausherman, a former Carroll County teacher, knew the system needed more money, but she was concerned because officials were looking to traditional sources, like developers, for more and more cash.

After defeat of a bill for a statewide education plate (like the Save the Bay tag), Ausherman said a local committee came up with the idea of developing a organizational plate, like those that identify the driver as an Elk or a Lion. In addition to the $70 regular fee, you pay an additional $40 for a plate with a little red schoolhouse on it. Of that, $25 goes to Frederick's educational technology fund, Ausherman said, and since April of last year, the project has raised about $13,000.

Individual school fund-raisers. If the system can't provide more for every school, every school may have to provide more for itself. At Middletown Elementary School, the students have a computer-thon each year. It works like the traditional march-a-thons and swim-a-thons, except that instead of walking or swimming, students complete exercises on the computer (Number Crunchers and other educational games, Ausherman says) to fulfill pledges. It raised $5,000 last year, she said.

Super-charged PTAs. In April, The Washington Post reported on PTAs around the metro area that were supplementing their schools' budgets in a major way, some paying the full freight for extra teachers in subjects like art and science. But the discrepancy between how much groups in different areas can raise (The PTA at Lafayette Elementary in northwest D.C. has a $150,000 budget compared to $2,000 for the Cleveland Elementary PTA in the Shaw section) call into question whether poor children are getting an equal shot at educational resources.

PTA parents raised the cash by doing things like working a day in a department store, delivering phone books and taking bets on which square of a grid-lined field a cow would "favor" with its excrement.

Tax-exempt foundations. Washington County recently formed one and in Prince William County, Va., this spring, all seven high schools formed an "athletic alliance" to raise money.

In the Charlotte, N.C. area, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system joined forces with the local business community to run an adult spelling bee that allowed spellers who made a mistake to stay in the competition by charging them $25 for every misspelled word. It raised $21,000.

One of the most promising ideas comes from the Dobbs Ferry school district in New York State, which has only three schools. It took the gamble of spending $60,000 of its $15.4 million annual budget to hire a fund-raiser named Michael Stewart. In his first year, Stewart and his 12-member board of trustees reported raising $225,000.

What if the local system hired such a person, not only to raise dollars by applying for grants and the like, but to advise local PTAs on how to maximize their fund-raising efforts? It does not appear to be an extreme gamble. And this strategy - asking parents for help with something that's fun - seems more likely to succeed than Wade's approach, which amounts to attempting to shame parents into giving by pointing out their faults.

Bob Maginis is editor of The Herald-Mail's Opinion page.

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