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The hidden pricetag of California’s public schools

The hidden pricetag of California’s public schools

At Scotts Valley High, a school eight miles north of Santa Cruz, the track is made of dirt.

Todd Hoffman, the volunteer coach, calls it the ’70s retro track. And despite years of trying, it’s something he hasn’t been able to upgrade. Hoffman heads up a fundraising group, one which, through parent and community donations, pays for 90% of the school’s athletic budget, he says — from the kids’ uniforms to the coaches’ salaries to the transportation to and from games. Every year, parents are asked to give $200 per child, per sports team to the club, a sum that Hoffman says wouldn’t fully cover the costs even if everyone paid them.

“It feels like we’re keeping it all going,” said Hoffman. “And that’s sad.”

For years, schools across California have been supported by parents, communities and education funds, groups which have long filled the gaps between what students need and what the state provides. Depending on the wealth of the community around those schools, those gaps might be filled tenfold or not at all — fueling a widening chasm between the haves and have-nots in California’s public schools.

At Palo Alto High, in the heart of a neighborhood where single-family homes sell for above $2 million, parents are asked to donate $300 per student to the school’s parent-teacher organization. That’s on top of $1,350 toward the city’s education foundation, and $100 to $350 toward the school’s glassblowing studio, full-fledged multimedia program, and more than a dozen other clubs or sports — each.

At Roy Cloud Elementary, which sits in the lush Emerald Hills neighborhood of Redwood City, that donation request is $750 per student — money that pays for the school’s garden science program, social-emotional learning initiatives, musical theater classes and more. And at many others, parents are asked for whatever they can give, from El Cerrito High’s pay-what-you-can suggestion to Dublin High’s dollar-a-day (or $180 total) annual ask.

Scotts Valley High School’s head coach for Cross Country Todd Hoffman on the school’s dirt track on Sept. 7, 2023, in Scotts Valley, Calif. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)

Scotts Valley High School’s head coach for Cross Country Todd Hoffman, right, looks at his runners as they prepare for a cross country meet at San Lorenzo Valley High School on Sept. 7, 2023, in Felton, Calif. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)

Scotts Valley High School’s dirt track is seen on Sept. 7, 2023, in Scotts Valley, Calif. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)

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“Public schools are supposed to be free, quote unquote,” said Jacqueline Wehe, a parent of two and an elementary school teacher in San Ramon. “I think the recurring theme for parents is: I thought I was sending my kids to a public school, which I thought was going to be funded. So why am I paying this much?”

The answer lies in the way California pays for public education, and how different policies and rising costs have changed funding formulas over time. In 1978, Proposition 13 capped local property tax rates and shrunk funding for public schools. Personnel costs have skyrocketed; today, 80% of current spending on public school students goes to health, benefit and pension costs for staff, according to an analysis from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). And of course, student enrollment is dramatically declining, a trend that’s lowered the amount of funding to each school based on attendance.

California’s per-student spending leapt from $14,245 in the 2012-13 academic year to $22,684 in 2021-22, according to the PPIC. But at the same time, external costs have continued climbing. Pension costs, for example, have more than doubled since a 2013 policy required districts to increase their contributions toward the teachers’ pension system, in an attempt to dig the program out of insolvency.

“California has a lot of money, and they kind of give with one hand and take back with the other,” said Heather Frank, the executive director of the Piedmont Education Foundation, which raised $3 million for the Piedmont Unified School District this academic year. “If you look closely at the state budget, there are all good projects going to good places. But I don’t think education is prioritized enough.”

Because of that, parent-teacher organizations and education funds — nonprofits set up to channel money toward specific school districts — have stepped in across the state. They pay for the salaries of librarians, music and art teachers; school supplies, technology and school counselors. And the more funds they receive, the more the opportunities at a school can multiply.

Librarian Paizley Spencer, left, helps fourth grade student Maddie Tivers-Wegner, right, with a computer issue in the Love Elementary School library on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023, in Alameda, Calif. The Parent-Teacher Association at the school has funded books, desks, and carpets for the library. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)

Students read in the library at Love Elementary School on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023, in Alameda, Calif. The Parent-Teacher Association at the school has funded books, desks, and carpets for the library. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)

Librarian Paizley Spencer, right, works with students in the Love Elementary School library on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023, in Alameda, Calif. The Parent-Teacher Association at the school has funded books, desks, and carpets for the library. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)

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“The reason we ask for so much is because of how much we actually fund for the students,” said Alison Oldford, the president of Roy Cloud Elementary’s parent-teacher organization in Redwood City. “We are still fully funding the school’s art program, for example — the teacher and all the supplies.”

The parent-teacher organization is also chipping in tens of thousands of dollars toward the physical education program, the school’s foreign language teacher and more. But despite the gaps, Roy Cloud — with this year’s parent-teacher organization budget at nearly $530,000 — is luckier than most.

Just four miles down the road, Garfield Elementary, where over 92% of all students qualify for free and reduced-price meals, has no parent-teacher organization at all. The school relies on the Redwood City Education Foundation, a nonprofit that raises money for the city’s three most under-resourced elementaries: Hoover, Taft and Garfield. Without a pool of parents able to give, the foundation struggled to raise $500,000 for all three schools last year — money it used to pay for the salaries of a behavioral specialist, a reading intervention specialist and full-time counselors, among the schools’ other needs.

“We know that there is a huge difference in the amount of resources that parents can contribute to their schools,” said Sara Alexander, the executive director of the Redwood City Education Foundation. “On one end, we have schools that can easily raise $800,000 annually to bridge the gap between what the school district provides and what their students need. And on the other end, we have schools with no PTO at all — which means there are zero dollars coming in beyond what the district can give.”

Depending on the wealth of a community, the budgets of both PTOs and education funds vary. With a suggested donation of $2,000 per student, for example, the Menlo Park-Atherton Education Foundation was able to raise over $4 million for the 2022-23 academic year. That money funded 25 credentialed teachers, 12 psychologists and counselors, elective classes, and even a dedicated emotional support dog at the district’s five schools, according to the foundation’s latest annual report.

Students in the library at Love Elementary School on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023, in Alameda, Calif. The Parent-Teacher Association at the school has funded books, desks, and carpets for the library. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group) 

At Alameda’s Love Elementary, where nearly 40% of the school’s students are eligible for free or reduced meals, it took three years for the PTO to raise enough for new books, furniture and software for the school’s library. PTO president Vanessa Acevedo-Reed said that since many of Love’s families are low-income, there is no suggested donation for parents each year.  Most of the parent-teacher organization’s approximately $40,000 annual budget comes from a large fundraising event every October. That pays for school supplies, art supplies and other essentials — and when money runs too short for teachers, parent volunteers step in to help in the classroom.

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Over the last decade, California has tried to ease disparities between wealthy and low-income schools by redistributing funding to school districts and charter schools based on the number of high-need students enrolled. Between the 2012-13 academic year to 2021-22, state spending increased by roughly $8,000 per student in the highest-need districts, compared to roughly $4,000 in those with the lowest need, according to a recent analysis from the PPIC.

But for many schools, it doesn’t seem to have stretched far enough.

“It’s a lot, trying to keep all of this together,” said Acevedo-Reed. “All of this funding could go away if no one is willing to step up to do these things. And that scares me.”