I AM 38: Because Education is a Civil Right

I'm at my children's school fundraiser. I'm eating pizza and holding coupons in my hand, wondering how many of these I have to attend to fund my children's education. In front of me I see a person inside a hot thermal mouse costume dancing around my kids. This person is Chuck E. Cheese, and he (or "it") is helping fund my children's elementary school's education. Laughing children surround this pizza-loving rodent. He is in the fifth level of minimum wage hell, but I'm not laughing because as a parent I know that funding public schools is the most important investment I can make. Public K-12 education has been gutted in the past three years, and I'm particularly angry because these school children are most likely -- at least in California -- to be Latino.

I'm Mexican-American and a second generation Californian. Propositions have always been strange politics for us natives because it is nearly impossible to differentiate the truth from a politician's agenda. However, according to Sandy Escobedo, Senior Policy Analyst at the Advancement Project:

The Latino K-12 population in California was over 1 million students, or 25.8 percent in 1981. By 2010, the number increased to over 3 million students, making Latino students more than half of the total K-12 population in California.

Those statistics are not part of an agenda; they are simply the truth. My children are merely 3 of that 3 million Latino number. I have three children who are half Mexican-American and hal Irish-American. I call them "Mixicans," and they are an important part of our state's future. Twenty years from now, their education, or lack thereof, will determine if they are the problem or the solution to problems of California.

The National Education Association, an organization for education professionals, tracks the decline in per-student funding on a national and state basis. Based on their analysis, in 1981, the state of California spent over $500 per year more per student in comparison to the rest of the nation. By 2009, the rest of the nation spent over $1,500 more per student per year in comparison to California. Yet, it gets worse.

In the last three years alone, California cut education by $20 billion. With numbers like these, it is no wonder that California now ranks 47th in per student funding and 50th in classroom size, resulting in over 40,000 educators without a job. This is the truth, not agenda.

Furthermore, Latino high school graduation in California is estimated to be 63 percent, according to the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System. At this current rate, improving high school graduation rates for Latinos would take a little over a decade. The Education Trust-West, a statewide education civil-rights organization, advocates on behalf of schools, parents, and students to reverse this trend. Arun Ramanathan, Executive Director of Ed Trust-West, states:

Tens of thousands of dropouts represent a large scale-tragedy for the California economy and our state's future prosperity. It's time we stopped talking about this problem and invested in the strategies that top districts and schools are using to fix it.

So what can we do to fix it? This November, Latinos in California have an opportunity to address this crisis by educating ourselves on the differences between the propositions on the ballot: Prop 30 and Prop 38, respectively. Prop 38 is the only initiative on the ballot that guarantees funding directly to schools on a per-student basis. The initiative is designed to last 12 years so that for the first time, in a long time, Latino students in our public schools receive the funding that they need to compete for jobs in the twenty-first century.

One might argue that the propositions are tax increases, and that we as a state cannot afford that. After all, what have the politicos done with our money before? Whatever happened to all the money the Lottery was going to give our public school? That is the brilliance of voting Yes on 38: it makes it a crime for any politician to divert money away from the schools.

A vote for Prop 30 will solve the adult issues of our state, such as funding prison guard pensions, but it does not put the children first. The biggest problem we need to address is that of education vs. incarceration. Education costs us around $7,500 per K-12 public school student a year where as a prisoner costs us around $50,000 a year per incarcerated adult. The difference for an incarcerated youth is much more staggering. A recent Legislative Analysts Office report noted that the state spent $179,000 in 2011-2012 per incarcerated youth! In essence, the state spends $171,500 MORE incarcerating our kids than it does educating them. Moreover, according to retiring San Francisco State President Robert Corrigan, California spends as much on prisons ($8.7 billion, or 9.45% of its budget), as it does on all of higher education ($9.3 billion, or 10.1% of its budget).

It was actually then-governor Jerry Brown that started the jail-building boom in California. Ironically enough, during Brown's first administration there were 44,000 people in prison. Today there are 44,000 prison guards! If that does not make you angry consider this: in the last 30 years, California has built 22 new prisons versus one new University and one State University. Victor Hugo said it best when he stated: "He who opens a school door, closes a prison."

Education is the most important civil rights issue today. We are living in a time of more and more economic segregation. If we put three million Latino students in underfunded schools, is that not economic segregation? Is that not "ghettoizing" our youth? Is California having the most crowded class sizes in the nation not a civil rights issue? As a parent, I see this issue as the civil rights issue of our time. Without an education that will lead to a good job, my kids -- along with many other minority children -- will slip further into poverty; further slipping into an underdeveloped working class with no escape. We may now sit anywhere on the bus, but if we cannot afford a good education then we may never get a job that will give us the paycheck to buy a ticket to ride that bus. That is economic segregation!

Prop 38 acknowledges that education is a civil right and it forces our governor and his fellow politicos in Sacramento to fund our schools. One might argue that we need to let the governor fix California's economic problem and that Prop 30 is that fix, but if they were to read the small print they would learn that Prop 30 does not do what Prop 38 can. Prop 30 is a compromise and I will not let my children's future be compromised any longer. Prop 30 comes with a threat of more cuts if not passed, whereas Prop 38 is a promise for California's future. Prop 30 redirects some of the public school money, whereas Prop 38 forces Sacramento to give 100% of the school funding to local schools.

That is why I am voting "Yes on 38" and hoping never to see Chuck E. Cheese as the answer to my children's lack of education funding. And, as I sit at this fundraiser eating pizza and slugging down sugary drinks, I wonder if the person dancing in the Chuck E. Cheese costume might be working in a better paying job had they not been educated in California.