Candy Anyone?

Sandra Tsing Loh, a writer and a performer, is the author most recently of “Mother on Fire,” a comic memoir of her struggle to find a school in Los Angeles for her child to attend. (Full biography.)

I admit I am not completely done trolling the new Innisbrook holiday gift catalog that my daughters bring home from school every fall, so the matter of their public school financing for 2008-2009 will have to wait. But I’d like to expand on Lance Izumi’s quote from Ben Chavis, the former charter school director, who says that his school doesn’t “need more money,” it needs “administrators who can manage money.”

Who knows how much money our public schools need? Schools are terrarium-like organisms financed in a nest of Byzantine ways — most applicable are metaphors not of straight economics but of funky, loamy biology. For instance, ours is a school whose P.E. program has been partially funded in the past by — and no apparent irony here — candy cane sales. To wit: we parents donate two or three boxes of 99 Cent Store candy canes (essentially penny candy), which are in turn sold back to our own children for a quarter a piece, then suddenly, there in the cash box, is a magical $500!

All I can tell you about this mysterious process is that candy cane sales are an incredibly efficient mechanism for sucking spare change out from the back seat of one’s car via the children, who function, in this case, like helpful bacteria or swarming sugar-obsessed rodents. Who will now get a fully accredited physical-education program from our local Y.M.C.A.! Which they’ll clearly need after eating all that candy.

Money for schools is often spent in the same illogical way in which it is made. While our PTA labors to improve on the $6,000 a year our Title I school has traditionally made (we need about that to run our kindergarten through second grade violin program — other typical expenses include $350 a day per bus for a field trip), booster organizations for more affluent schools may raise a staggering $300,000 a year.

Last year, wish list items for one such school included an award-winning full-time dance choreographer, campus-wide wireless and a science lab — price tags tossed out for each item were about $50,000. Note that this is an elementary school. (Science lab? Whatever happened to a magnifying glass, an ant and the sun?) Then again, with little apparent effort, our own tiny school magically (and quickly!) received $150,000 last year for a new blacktop to freshen ourselves up for our California Distinguished School Award visit.

On the one hand, as a PTA secretary on the ground scratching my head over our budgets, I always question the blanket notion of “more public school financing,” even when it is targeted toward seemingly benevolent line items like “computer technology.” On the other hand, parent choice and school vouchers all sound great until you realize how utterly confused and overwhelmed parents are on a daily basis. As usual, public education solutions — both left and right — leave us between a rock and a … hard candy.

I would type more, but to help save gym class, I must go back to ordering some Peppermint Crunch Bark. (Please e-mail me your orders!)

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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