Make sure dollars come w/o strings

It’s the best of causes, for the worst of reasons.

While formation of a new, non-profit foundation to raise private dollars for Bainbridge Island’s public school system should be cause for celebration, the very fact that it’s necessary is cause for lament.

As reported elsewhere in this issue, the trust will seek to tap private individuals, foundations and corporations to pay for instruction and programs. Unfortunately, it tacitly lets the State of Washington – among whose fundamental mandates is “fully funding” public education – off the hook. And we wonder about the wisdom of that precedent, even as the governor and legislators find new ways to ignore voter mandates for spending on classrooms and teachers. We’ve already come to accept local property tax levies as necessary to keep our schools open; we find ourselves poised to give the state yet another excuse to spend dollars elsewhere.

Is the trust necessary? We believe so, and we support its mission and will follow its efforts with interest. As reported, the Bainbridge Island School District has slipped near the bottom in terms of education spending per student in this state; we look to the trust for vision and action.

But we do envision some challenges in the new endeavor. For example, we can foresee lots of “targeted” giving for sports programs, play fields and other “sellable” extracurricular activities, while less dramatic programs go wanting. We need to keep our focus on basic education, ensuring that dollars go into the classroom where they’re needed the most.

Also, while organizers say they will look first and foremost to individuals for supplementary funds, the lure of the corporate dollar will be powerful as well. Yet experiences in other districts around the nation suggest that corporate largess usually comes with strings attached – advertising in classrooms and hallways, and commercial logos attached to equipment and displays. A few of the more bizarre examples we were able to find, with a little research online, include:

* Districts that contracted with a soft drink company for the exclusive presence of that company’s vending machines in the lunchroom – and then were promised more money, if the schools met a yearly quota of pop sales to students;

* A program in which students studied work and business economics by looking at the management of a national hamburger chain (sponsored, of course, by the chain);

* A Colorado district, where advertising was affixed to the side of the school bus fleet;

* A Texas district, where administrators allowed the painting of corporate advertising on school roofs – not coincidentally, in the path of jets coming and going from a nearby airport.

We wish our new Bainbridge Island Public Educational Trust the best.

But we hope it can bring in funding for all programs, and steer clear of crass commercial entanglements. Our goal should be learning, not cultivating brand loyalty.

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