Budget Cuts Leaving California Schools High and Dry: Youth of Color Disproportionately Affected

By Guest Columnist Jun 11, 2009

by Christina Chen Last Tuesday, I watched as the returns for four Bay Area parcel tax ballot initiatives aimed at ameliorating the impact of state budget shortfalls on schools were announced. The results of Tuesday’s elections, which had come on the heels of several other measures intended to offset the governor’s massive cuts to public education, were mixed: two passed, while two failed. Pleasanton and Redwood became the latest in a growing number of cash-strapped cities in which parcel tax and bond measures – designed to keep school districts financially solvent – have been struck down. In these parcel tax campaigns, youth have been at the forefront of the fight to preserve our most basic educational resources. We live in troubling times when folks in our communities, particularly students, must resort to convincing more than 2/3’rds of their city’s voters to uphold our right to a decent education- a whopping super majority by any standard. Such are the restraints faced by ailing school districts everywhere, as cities have turned to stopgap measures in hopes of bandaging a long-ravaged state fiscal system. The culprit: Proposition 13, a constitutional amendment passed in 1978 that capped property taxes and stipulated that at least 2/3’rds of a city electorate approve property tax increases for passage into law. Within a year of its enactment, Proposition 13 had reduced school revenues by over 15%. When I was a representative on my city’s school board, I saw students fight relentlessly to pass a parcel tax that would, at least for the time being, keep the specter of state control and cuts to vital programs and staff at bay. My peers and I staged rallies, phone-banked, participate in GOTV efforts, and made impassioned speeches about why education mattered to us. We defied society’s stereotypes of apathetic youth, that is, self-absorbed teenagers who were too occupied with updating their MySpaces and Xangas (or whatever it was that was popular at the time… damn, has it been that long already?!) to engage in anything politically meaningful. We were pissed off and we weren’t afraid to show it. The budget axe was coming down hard on California, and we students were not going to sit blithely by as our educational opportunities were pulled from right under us. Youth know what’s at stake. Budget crises and empty district coffers mean more crippling cuts. When proposals to increase school financing fail, students are forced to endure the termination of afterschool enhancement programs, reduced resources for safe and clean schools, and nixed funding for textbooks and instructional materials- to say nothing of the thousands of teachers, counselors, and administrators who will be issued pink slips when it is decided that they are “luxuries” that cities can no longer afford. Furthermore, the services that are most at risk for being placed on the proverbial chopping block are those that are disproportionately utilized by low income students and students of color. These services are particularly crucial in closing the achievement gap for youth of color who have been given the historical and structural short shrift within our nation’s academic institutions. A 2007 study found that among the nearly 3000 students surveyed- the overwhelming majority of which were students of color- regular participation in high-quality afterschool arts, athletic, and music programs translate into significant gains in standardized test scores and improved work habits for disadvantaged youth. In times of financial decline, education should be exalted as a mechanism by which our country can reduce inequity and expand economic opportunities for all. Moreover, educational attainment is directly linked to the standard of living and productivity of American workers, and by extension, the strength of this nation’s economy. A highly skilled workforce is an important source of economic growth. In this economic crisis, we should be reaffirming — and not reneging on — our commitment to high-quality education.