On a typical day at Harbor View Elementary School in Corona del Mar, students use iPads to complete spelling exercises, learn math facts and work on reading activities.
The iPads were paid for by the Harbor View Dads group, a fundraising organization that spent several years raising enough money to purchase 172 devices for the students in kindergarten through sixth grade.
Whittier Elementary is just a short drive up the freeway in Costa Mesa, but in many respects is worlds away from getting the technology the students at Harbor View have at their fingertips, said Patrick DeVusser, a fourth-grade teacher at Whittier.
The situation casts light on a question that few Newport-Mesa Unified School District parents, teachers and administrators would like to discuss: Are students in middle-class Costa Mesa getting the same educational opportunities as those in more affluent Newport Beach?
"It's that thing that no one wants to say because you can't fix it," DeVusser said. "It's more complex than one simple solution."
Newport-Mesa Unified is a basic aid district, which means that property taxes create enough revenue to fund school budgets without supplemental state funding. From that pool of money, the district dolls out funds equally based on the number of students being served at a particular school.
Some schools in Costa Mesa's lower-income areas receive additional funds through Title 1, which was created to ensure that all children, regardless of their family's income, have a fair and equal opportunity to obtain a high-quality education.
Newport-Mesa Unified serves more than 21,000 students at 32 elementary, intermediate and high schools on a budget of about $242 million.
Many parents believe the district's budget is not enough to adequately serve each of the schools, allowing them to churn out the high-caliber students that the world has come to expect from the next generation.
For this reason, some in the community have banded together to create nonprofit parent foundation groups that raise money to supplement the district's core programs, said Diana Long, executive director of the Newport Harbor Education Foundation, which serves Newport Harbor High School.
In addition to technology like iPads, foundations can help to fund part-time teacher salaries, supplemental programs like music and art and enhanced science programs, as well as pay for other classroom items that teachers would otherwise pay for themselves.
In recent years, Newport Harbor's foundation has raised money to support free after-school tutoring and special programs for students whose parents did not attend college, which places them at a greater disadvantage when it comes to applying, Long said.
"We've seen the budgets dwindle year after year," she said. "When you tug at your heartstrings, you care most about your children and your children's friends and the community in which they attend school. You want everyone to succeed."
However, researchers believe that the same foundations formed to increase educational opportunities in schools are reintroducing a funding imbalance that the California Supreme Court sought to eliminate in the 1970s.
In its Serrano vs. Priest decision, the court ruled that spending needs to be equitable among school districts so that a child's education is independent of the economic standing of the area in which they live.
Cal State Fullerton professor Sarah Hill and her colleagues have been gathering information and tax data for 1,500 education foundations to create a database that highlights the difference in funding among districts.
"The Supreme Court said that students have a right to equal protection," she said. "The state made great efforts to try to provide an equal education, and these foundations are sort of offending that. This means a drastically different quality of education. Only some kids are getting access to that."
Public school funding inequality has become a growing trend in recent years, Hill said, and Newport-Mesa is no exception.
Newport-Mesa was among the top seven Southern California school districts when it comes to raising funds, according to the data. Irvine Unified School District ranked second on the list.
While Hill's research primarily compares different school districts, the contrasts among schools in Newport-Mesa are a reflection of the differences between the two cities that make up the district — more affluent Newport Beach versus primarily middle-class Costa Mesa.