"How can a state so rich be so poor?"
The teenage student who asked this in 2003, remains anonymous. She appears briefly in Part I of a television series by John Merrow.
This student was referring to the decline in California's education system. The young woman was participating in a protest in San Francisco against one of the numerous rounds of cuts to education budgets that have plagued the Golden State in recent years.
The scene then switched to a lengthy segment focusing on John Deasy, who at that time was Superintendent of Schools in the Santa Monica-Malibu district. Deasy can be seen and heard decrying the sad state of schools in his district and in the state:
In California the average cost to support a prisoner is $27,000 for a year we have under $6,000 to support a student. He continued on, going to great lengths to describe the dire straits of his district. When he arrived to Los Angeles, he said, it was unbelievable what they [the students] didn't have: PE, arts, music, counselors, psychologists, social workers, speech therapists, guidance counselors, career counselors.
Fast forward almost ten years.
Today, John Deasy is the Superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) which serves more than 600,000 students in Los Angeles County and employs around 40,000 teachers. About 73% of the students in this district are Latino, many of them immigrants or children of immigrants. In Los Angeles County, the problems he railed against in 2003 have now became constant and omnipresent, and under his watch.
On Monday, February 13, 2012, at a special meeting of the LAUSD Board of Education, Deasy himself introduced a proposal to trim 535 million dollars from the agency budget. This measure would include cuts to adult technical and vocational education, the English as a Second Language (ESL) program and early education programs. In his plan, art education would cease and 3,156 teachers would be fired along with 589 librarians, janitors, counselors.
Those preschool centers fated to be closed currently serve 25,000 children in 375 schools. And currently, art education is provided to 270,000 kids in elementary schools, and many thousands receive assistance in after-school programs in 600 schools.
All this would have disappeared if the LAUSD board had voted on Monday to accept Deasy's plan, which was one of three options considered to cut the deficit from LAUSD's budget. Instead, the board postponed its decision until March 8 and asked Deasy to develop an alternate proposal that will avoid the elimination of these programs. The same ones Deasy so forcefully advocated in 2003.
Teacher Juanita Gonzales, from Bancroft Middle School, holds cut out pictures of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Los Angeles Unified School District board President Monica Garcia and LAUSD board candidate Luis Sanchez during an education budget cuts rally and protest at Pershing Square on May 13, 2011 in downtown Los Angeles, California.
The ax is suspended in mid-air for 22 days. The board has time to consider alternatives, including placing a ballot measure to increase property taxes by $300 annually to obtain $220 million.
This was just one part of a seemingly never-ending cycle of cuts, budget reduction, elimination of programs and teacher layoffs.
It hasn't always been like this in California. The Golden State was once a Mecca for education at all levels. Higher education at the three systems created by the government the University of California with 9 campuses, the California State University with 23 and the enormous Community College system was all affordable. And it was also virtually tuition-free until 1970-71 when Ronald Reagan was governor and pushed for a change.
And while in the 1990's the per-unit tuition fee at a community college in California was around $11, it is $36 now, and will increase to $42 by spring. By the end of last year, according to the LA Times' Larry Gordon, yearly tuition and fees at a University of California (UC) was about $13,200, compared with a national average of $9,185 for similar colleges. Cal State charged $6,521for tuition and fees, a sum at almost the national average of $7,186. Community colleges still charged less than similar schools in other states - $1,119 vs. $3,288 - but increased costs by 37% last year.
All these don't include room and board - which averaged $9,535 for public universities --nor books.
The situation in high schools is no better. Dropout rates in LAUSD are the second worst in the nation. And the worst performers are schools located in areas serving kids from poor families, usually Latinos, many of them immigrants, and African-Americans.
As the fiscal crisis of California continues to worsen, local school districts follow the pattern of the state's systems of higher education--reducing programs and firing scores of teachers.
This week, when the members of the Board of Education of LAUSD met to decide on cuts, they found thousands of people - parents, teachers, students - protesting, chanting and shouting outside the building. Maybe the massive protest helped to postpone draconian decisions. Perhaps the programs will be cut after all when the board meets again on March 8. In any case, the future never looked so bleak for California children enrolled in public school.
What would John Deasy say, circa 2003?
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