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Originally published Wednesday, January 9, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Seattle school parents pressured to pay

It's time to call attention to a key issue plaguing Seattle Public Schools — class size. Despite public comments from district officials...

Special to The Times

It's time to call attention to a key issue plaguing Seattle Public Schools — class size. Despite public comments from district officials challenging the relevance of class size to academic achievement, every teacher I've spoken with has cited large class size as one of the biggest impediments to effective pedagogy.

In 2000, voters approved Initiative 728 by nearly 72 percent. This measure provided state funding to reduce class sizes. But, our state's piecemeal approach to education funding has proved ineffective. Seven years later, class sizes in Seattle remain high.

The district's response to underfunded schools has been larger classes and leaner services. Frustrated by inadequate state funding and district allocation of these limited funds, parents who "believe" in public schools are put in the difficult position of having to subsidize them.

Though we're supposed to pay for enhancements, PTAs routinely "buy down" class size by supporting volunteer and paid-tutor programs so that the adult-student ratio in the classroom can be reduced and teachers are able to work with smaller groups, thus meeting the needs of students at both ends of the spectrum and in-between. At our school, "academic support" makes up roughly 50 percent of our PTA budget.

How do we do this? Through fundraising. Many PTAs are already planning for spring auction season — a time when schools lucky enough to have an affluent parent base will raise as much as $200,000 to supplement the school budget. Those unfortunate enough not to have parents with disposable income or even a PTA at all will have to make do with what the Legislature and the School District provide.

But at our school, which arguably could serve as a model for what all Seattle schools could look like (we're economically and ethnically diverse, boast a unique arts-integrated curriculum, an advanced-learning program, an excellent teaching staff and an experienced principal), our free- and reduced-price lunch population has dropped from the 40 percent that once made us eligible for supplemental federal funding to just below 30 percent. We're turning into a solidly middle-class community so we're caught betwixt and between — not poor enough to qualify for extra help from the district and the federal government and not rich enough to adequately augment what the district provides.

And so we parents are feeling the pressure. If we don't raise enough money this year, we may be forced to cut our tutor program, something our talented and committed teachers have begged us not to do. If we don't volunteer to help with reading groups or Everyday Math, our children won't get as much academic attention as they deserve.

The school tour season is beginning. Though school choice is supposed to be about choosing the best academic fit for your child, I've noticed a disturbing trend — parents are evaluating schools based on how much money is raised by the PTA. One parent even suggested we might be forced to "target" a certain "type" of parent (read financially well-off) to ensure that our funding base continues to grow. The school-funding reality is that your child will have access to as many services as parents are willing and able to provide.

Public education based on choice? A subsidized system that promotes class distinctions is more like it. There's no excuse for Washington to rank 42nd in education funding.

So decision-makers, I challenge you to do the math, using the curriculum of your choice. We need a state public-education-funding formula that makes sense and a school district that is committed to equitably and responsibly allocating resources. Figure out how to accomplish this. Be sure to show your work.

Alison Krupnick is a Seattle Public Schools parent and PTA member at Adams Elementary School in Ballard.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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