SPENCER MICHELS: The sprawling, diverse West Contra Costa School District snakes along the shores of San Francisco Bay, and stretches up into the hills.
Like a lot of districts in California and across the nation, it has been scrambling every way it knows how to remain solvent and improve the education it offers. In June, voters in the district approved a new tax on parcels of land, which cut a $16 million budget shortfall in half.
SPOKESPERSON: Total percentage: 70.7 percent! ( Cheers and applause )
SPENCER MICHELS: Despite the hard- fought victory, community workers knew the parcel tax would only make a dent in the myriad educational problems faced by poor school districts. Still, it was something. For months, students tried to raise the residents' awareness of the plight of the schools.
STUDENT: Hi, I'm a student walking around to help to promote Measure B.
SPENCER MICHELS: The district had publicized what programs were on the chopping block: All high school sports; all librarians; and all counselors. The announced cutbacks would play havoc with rich and poor schools alike, but the most drastic effects would be felt in the district's poor communities, like Richmond, California, where the schools were already in bad shape.
Barbara Becnel runs a center to improve the North Richmond neighborhood and its schools. It's a really high murder rate.
BARBARA BECNEL: There's crime, there's a high rate of asthma, there's a high rate of HIV/AIDS, there's a high rate of substance abuse.
So you've got poverty, you have hunger. I would say that you can't fix the schools without also, at the very same time, working on all these levels and layers of issues that impact the community.
SPENCER MICHELS: Even with the occasional tax windfall, schools in places like Richmond never get the attention they need, according to Democrat George Miller, who represents the area in Congress.
REP. GEORGE MILLER: In many instances, these schools are essentially invisible. They're invisible certainly politically. They're poor schools in poor neighborhoods and poor communities, and they don't have the political swak to get the fair allocation of resources.
SPENCER MICHELS: Those problems go beyond the relief brought by a parcel tax. So to push for more money for public schools, several West Contra Costa activists went on a 21-day hunger strike. Among them was 66-year-old Fred Jackson.
FRED JACKSON: Education has been put on the back seat of the agenda, the social agenda.
GROUP: When do we want it?
SPENCER MICHELS: More public funding was also the aim of these students and parents from throughout the district who marched 70 miles to the state capitol this spring. They wanted to convince politicians to guarantee a minimum level of funding for California's public schools.
STUDENT: Everybody deserves an equal education, and we all should be out here fighting for it. There should be tens of thousands of people.
GROUP: Fight for education!
GROUP: Fight for education!
SPENCER MICHELS: Alvin Fields is a junior at Richmond's John F. Kennedy High, which is located in the high-crime neighborhood of Richmond called "the iron triangle."
ALVIN FIELDS: If you want to become somebody in life, you're going to put this aside. If not, then you're going to be with the other statistics on the street selling drugs or stuff like that, and I don't want to become that.
SPENCER MICHELS: Ten years ago, this school was regarded as dangerous and ineffective. It was losing half its teachers each year. Jim Ellis is a former businessman who turned teacher and school administrator.
JIM ELLIS: When I first got here in January 2000, it was typical that you would see students throwing desks around the room. In the hallways, you'd have books or objects being thrown. We had one teacher that was punched in the face.
TEACHER: Make sure we clear the hallway.
SPENCER MICHELS: Three years ago, Julio Franco took over as principal at a school that is 45 percent African American, 43 percent Hispanic, and 1 percent Caucasian.
When Franco arrived at Kennedy, he raised expectations-- cracking down on student violence, making physical improvements to the school, and inspiring students and teachers to raise the school's academic ratings.
JULIO FRANCO: It boiled down to you get what you expect. And if I'm going to make excuses and say that just because we're low socio-economically, I'm in the wrong position. I'm in the wrong place.
SPENCER MICHELS: Despite Franco's success, Kennedy has remained in jeopardy. Kelly Mosely is one of two counselors at Kennedy who were told this spring they would be laid off.
KELLY MOSELY: Okay, I'm going tell you how to fill this out very briefly, and then we'll go over questions.
SPENCER MICHELS: Although her job was saved by the tax measure, the task she has always faced is daunting. This is a school where parental involvement is limited.
The counselors have worked day and night to raise the percentage of seniors going to college, from just 10 percent two years ago to 75 percent this year. But it could easily slip back.
KELLY MOSELY: We have kids here that their parents have just gotten to grade six. They cannot-- as much as they want to-- they can't help these kids get into college because they're lacking the basic, you know, tools that it takes to get them there.
SPOKESPERSON: And I'm going to insert...
SPENCER MICHELS: Besides hoping for tax dollars, JFK took another tact: It started looking for private funds. A wealthy donor gave $2.5 million to build a modern computer lab, which prepares inner-city youngsters for jobs and college.
Free food available for students in the lab boosts attendance. The money came from Internet pioneer Ron Whittier and his wife.
RON WHITTIER, Former Intel Executive: This district, in general, is under funded. Something has to happen almost in a quantum fashion to be able to bring additional investment into this district for it to succeed in the long haul. I know no other way than having a bunch of individuals get committed to that task.
SPENCER MICHELS: In the wealthier part of the West Contra Costa District, private money helped fill in the gaps as well. Parents at Kensington Hilltop Elementary School raise $175,000 a year to support art, music, and science.
STUDENT: I was trying to find out if people have internal alarm clocks.
SPENCER MICHELS: Kensington parents volunteer in the classrooms, sometimes in numbers higher than the teachers need. Donations pay the entire salaries of the art and science teachers. But Kensington School is an island. After sixth grade, most kids transfer to private school or to another district, and that strips West Contra Costa of some of its highest achievers.
The inequality that exists between rich and poor schools within the district is even more pronounced between rich and poor districts, and that has been an issue in public education for decades, and remains one today. Gloria Johnston is superintendent of West Contra Costa.
GLORIA JOHNSTON: There are neighboring school districts here that get $300 more per student, $600 more per student, $900 more per student than we do. ( Band music playing )
SPENCER MICHELS: And in some districts in the state, the allocation is up to $4,000 more per pupil than in West Contra Costa. Nearly 30 years ago, California's Supreme Court decreed that all public schools, rich and poor, should be funded equally.
But outdated state formulas continue to allow wealthier districts to keep property taxes. While schools in poor neighborhoods get some extra money from the federal government, they have to spend more for classes like remedial reading.
TEACHER: What kind of poem did we say it was?
STUDENT: Shakespearean sonnet?
SPOKESPERSON: Shakespearean sonnet.
SPENCER MICHELS: So, Johnston argues, the discrepancies remain.
GLORIA JOHNSTON: It is not equitable. The funding formula was developed and established in the 1970s, and it has not been looked at in a serious way since then.
SPENCER MICHELS: Congressman Miller says the federal government should withhold education funds from states that don't equalize funding.
REP. GEORGE MILLER: The equalization formulas have to be modernized. The California formula was long before we had this huge disparity in our populations and this incredible diversity in our population.
SPENCER MICHELS: There are no plans on the horizon to even the distribution of school funds. But in addition to the tax increase, the West Contra Costa District scored another victory in June: The state agreed to reduce the interest rate on money it had loaned the district ten years ago. Education advocates say that reduction, plus new public and private funds, merely serve as a band-aids; that schools are hanging on by their thumbs.
Without systemic reform of public education financing, they argue, poor districts will have to continue scrambling to maintain the bare minimum in their schools.