01/14/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Tough Decisions Should Not Ignore the Future

My son, Malik, who is in the eighth grade, is going through the process of applying for high school. I recently read one of his essays in which he discussed his need to be "academically safe."

I asked, "What does that mean?" I was assuming some contemporary form of "trying to act white," which can occur with African Americans ridiculing their counterparts for their high academic achievement.

Fortunately, Malik currently attends a public school that values high achievement and is firmly embedded into the culture. He also assured me he did not feel unsafe physically.

I asked another friend, who is an educator, what academically safe could mean. "An environment that everyone has committed and decided consciously to approach schooling as serious business and that the environment could be seen a safe place for a person who needs that kind of support."

Malik defined academically safe as follows:

"As an African American who is tall and plays basketball, there are certain assumptions made about me. It's distracting to be in a school environment where students are not taking care of business. It helps to have a group that is taking care of business academically because it makes it easier for me not to fall into certain stereotypes."

I am quite proud to have a child embracing that type of critical thinking. I am also reminded that Malik, given the school he attends along with the "gentle" insistence he consistently receives at home for high achievement, it makes sense that it would be glaring to him if he wasn't in an academically safe environment.

But as the state's budget deficit deepens, now projected to nearly $15 billion in the next fiscal budget year and could balloon to $42 billion over the next 18 months, it becomes more likely that fewer students, especially those attending public schools, will experience the luxury of feeling academically safe.

California's ability to address its economic problems may be more challenging than those at the federal level because of the constraints placed by decades of ballot initiatives.

It is difficult for the state to raise revenues because the California system allows 33 percent of the Legislature to constitute a solid majority.

Former Gov. Gray Davis was thrown out of office in part for the Vehicle Licensing Fee (VLF), which would have reduced the current projected deficits. Many of those who cheered as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced that his first act after his election in 2003 would be to cut the VLF are now the primary obstructionists to any proposal that seeks to close the budget gap by increasing revenues.

Where does this leave us? We will once again be privy to ringside seats as the Legislature debates cutting social programs for the state's most vulnerable residents, which will undoubtedly include education.

Does the current economic crisis mean that our elected leadership no longer has an obligation to invest in the state's human infrastructure?

If we are going to worry about the state's businesses, how can we afford to ignore the future of our students?

We've already seen the impact on the California State University system that could force the state to go back on its commitment to enroll every resident who maintains a B average in AP courses.

If the Legislature continues to do nothing, allowing the deficit to grow through inaction, then more public education will become "academically unsafe" because it will it feed increasingly on the toxins of mediocrity.

What do want our schools to look like? Is that vision aligned with what we are willing to pay?

Whatever resources we are unwilling to pay for education will most likely go toward corrections. Tough decisions must be made about California's present economic situation. But it cannot be at the expense of its future.