School's Out, and It Spells Trouble

07/08/2010 05:42 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

School's out for summer. That means swimming pools, outdoor grilling, and summer camp -- but it also means hard times for many in Los Angeles. No school means no lunch for many low-income kids, no child care for working parents, and more crime citywide.

As budget-driven cuts to the length of the school year this year and further reductions slated for next year make summer vacations longer, there is a deep cost being incurred by this city. Our schools remain one of our most valuable tools for reaching young people on every level - academic education, social education, nutrition, and violence prevention. No one issue is an island, and a cut in one area can have a substantive impact in unexpected places. The reduction of summer classes and programs for 150,00 kids, for instance, means thousands of low-income children who relied on subsidized school lunches are left wondering where their next meal is coming from, as the LA Times recently reported.

It's not only school kids who are impacted: so is everyone in Los Angeles. All the research agrees: Good schools mean a safer society. Simply put, kids who stay in school are less likely to commit crimes. A 2006 study by research group Bridgeland, DiIulio & Morison found that kids who drop out of high school are more than eight times as likely to wind up in jail or prison.

Some projects recognize these connections, and take a holistic approach not just to schools, but to whole neighborhoods. The Harlem School Zone in New York City, and MLA Partner Schools here in Los Angeles, both offer examples of how schools can be turned into community centers. By incorporating after-school programming, connecting students and families to local nonprofits, keeping doors open and classes available until 7pm, these schools become anchors of their communities. With community investment, not only do the schools turn around, but the neighborhoods can as well. And that's good for everybody.

Yes, the city is broke beyond all reason. Yes, some cuts to social services are inevitable. But schools remain one of our best avenues to make substantive change. They're a powerful tool for violence prevention, and are increasingly a hub for providing resources to communities who need it most. Using them that way also saves us all money. The National Center for Education Statistics reports it costs an average of $9,644 a year to educate a student. The annual cost to lock up an inmate is $22,600. Factoring in those kind of numbers, a recent study by the Alliance for Excellent Education estimates that improving the high school graduation rate for males would save California almost $753 million in incarceration expenses, victims expenses, lost wages, and related costs.

To spend more money on prisons rather than investing in schools is not only foolish, it is wasteful. As Los Angeles marks its third straight year of declining graduation rates, it is an issue we can no longer afford to overlook.

In a time when the probation department is misplacing tens of millions of dollars, and the Mayor's much-touted violence intervention program (Gang Reduction and Youth Development - GRYD) remains unable to explain or show results for the millions already spent, this is not the time to cut school funding, eliminate summer classes, reduce teachers, or cut days off the school year. These cuts not only affect our children, they affect us all by increasing crime rates, increasing costs for already-overburdened prisons and jails, placing additional childcare burdens on families who already can barely make ends meet, and yes, leaves our children hungry.

Now, more than ever, with fewer services or alternatives, we must invest, and invest heavily, in our schools.