My son, Ethan, attends Raymond Elementary in Fullerton and last night was “Movie Night.” It was raining very hard and I told him that there probably wouldn’t be anyone coming, but to my surprise and his delight, the cafeteria was packed. Kindergartners were huddled with their parents in sleeping bags and the big kids sat along the back wall in small groups. It was a great sight on a chilly night. I went to the back to help out and the parent volunteers were talking about the economy. You could see the tension on their faces.
More than a handful told me that their spouses had either been laid off or work hours cut back. One who helps out in the morning told me how the attendance in the breakfast program had tripled in the last few months and this was real evidence that parents were hurting financially. But despite the hardship, they all shared the same concern. What can be done about the schools. They knew that several teachers will likely be given “pink slips” as well as a few key classified people.
“How could they do this? We’re already cut back to the bone here. The little money we raise helps out with teacher supplies but it feels like we are just plugging holes in the Titanic.” Mostly moms (I believe I was the only dad in the kitchen), they were all incredulous that their legislators would not consider raising taxes for schools. “They need to be here in this conversation. They need to hear and see for themselves the state of our schools. They need to understand that there is a connection between education and the economy.”
A generation ago, California was the gold standard for education in the United States. Its University of California was hailed as the “Ivy League”
of the west. The California State University and community college network had no equal in promoting access and equity for all. Its per pupil spending on K-12 was among the highest in the nation. Children of the golden state grew up in an environment of the possible, where achieving their highest potentials as engineers, doctors, teachers, scientists, innovators, and artists was the norm. This energy and support for public education was what drove California’s economy to rank eighth in the world.
Today, our once vaunted education system is in shambles. A recent report by Education Week shows California ranks 47th in the nation in per pupil funding, trailing the national average by nearly $2,400 per student. It is absolutely astounding that even in this deep recession, the richest state in the richest nation in the world is about to fall to last place in per capita spending. Can you imagine having a worse educational infrastructure than Louisiana or Mississippi? There is no one to blame but those elected leaders, from the governor to those in his party who would rather sell out our childrens’ future than fund education at levels which will give them a future. Sadly, our children’s fate may be one of lowered expectations, limited skills, and quite possibly third world status. And remember, their fate is our fate. If they fail, California fails. If the largest state fails, our country fails and we will indeed become a third world nation.
Some of these same politicians often brag about their patriotism, their support for the flag and fight against terrorism. They are eager and willing to dump billions into the military and a police state all in the name of patriotism. I suggest we need a broader definition of a patriot. There is no doubt that those who defend our freedom are patriots but aren’t those who nurture and shape and educate our children, our most valuable natural resource, aren’t they too, patriots? Our teachers are the soldiers in the trenches for 180 days, who engage, assess, instruct, differentiate, and help our children fight the battle against ignorance and intolerance. They help them become the next generation of Americans who will be handed the mantle of collective leadership and engagement in the world. How’s that for patriotism?
So please ask any elected leader who refuses to invest in education, “Who will teach our children the values of American democracy?” Ask them who will teach our youth the 2st century skills students will need to compete globally? Ask then if investment in education is not patriotism. And finally ask them if they continue to dismantle education, who do they expect will vote for them?
Michael Matsuda is aÂ member ofÂ the North Orange County Community College District Board of Trusteeâ€™s.