California spends $216,081 for every youth incarcerated by the Department of Juvenile Justice and $7,571 for every student in the public school system.
We say that education matters, yet California is ranked number 47 among the states in per pupil spending on education. Further, according to "Quality Counts," a respected annual report produced by Education Week, California has some of the most overcrowded classrooms in the nation, as well as the greatest shortages of librarians, school nurses, counselors and other critical support staff in the nation.
We say that children are our future, but what kind of future should we expect when our priorities do not include education? What kind of future can a poor child expect? How about the future for a homeless child -- the most invisible children in our society? At School on Wheels, we see how constant moves from relatives, to motels, to shelters, to cars, to campgrounds impact their education. Every time a student moves, he falls a little bit behind her peers; if he moves five times in a school year, imagine how that impacts his studies. For children, homelessness not only means more health problems, more stress and emotional problems, more developmental delays, but it also means more problems at school. School - many times their last refuge of normalcy and stability -- becomes another area of failure for them. But they're not the ones who are failing -- we are.
I've been listening to graduation speeches recently. The speakers talk about dreams... "dream the dream and make it come true. " Or they ask students not to give up on their dreams. Or perhaps they talk about self reliance, that the best helping hand you can have is the one on the end of your arm. They talk about the next phase in life, the vast potential that is yours if you seize it.
Unfortunately, those speeches aren't written for most of the homeless kids we see every day. This is not because they don't have big dreams or huge potential. They do. It's because it's so darn hard for them to get an education. First of all, over one-fifth of homeless kids do not even go to school. For those who do, the educational system has a hard time doing what it's supposed to do. Constant moves from shelter to shelter push the homeless student further and further behind in school. Can you remember what it was like to start a new school? Imagine what it must be like to start four or five in a school year? The dread of new teachers and students, the lack of supplies to work in school, being hungry, not sleeping well or having a quiet place to do homework -- these are all the obstacles that homeless children face every day. So it's hardly surprising that they quickly fall far below their grade levels. Homeless children are on average nine times more likely to repeat a grade than housed students and four times more likely to drop out of school entirely.
The perseverance, resilience and courage it takes for a homeless student to graduate, whether from elementary, middle, or high school is astonishing. When we spend almost 30 times as much money locking youth up as educating them, how can we say that education matters? I'm tired of talk. Let's educate our kids. Let's make education truly matter. Our future is at stake.