06/08/2011 09:02 pm ET | Updated Aug 08, 2011

California Schools in a 'State of Emergency': Do We Really Value Education?

Last month, my husband forwarded me an email from his school district's superintendent warning him and his fellow teachers that if the proposed "all-cuts" California budget passes, they are looking at four to six fewer weeks of school next year. (Yes, I said weeks.) I nearly laughed at first, it seemed so ludicrous, but this is no joke. It's come to these dire straits -- in school districts across the state of California.

Right now, we are looking square in the face of another $4 billion being cut from K-12 school funding and the loss of some 20,000 teaching jobs if we let the current tax rates expire this month. In the past three years, $20 billion has already been slashed from public education funding and 30,000 teachers have been laid off, according to the California Teachers Association.  

California ranks dead last in the nation when it comes to student-teacher ratio, counselor-student ratio and librarian-student ratio; we are an abysmal 47th in per pupil spending, and 41st in school nurse-student ratio. The national education newspaper Education Week grades our state an "F" when it comes to supporting our schools and students.

All of this -- and the looming deadline for getting this temporary tax extension passed in the legislature -- is why our state's educators and their supporters declared a "State of Emergency" for California public education. Regional rallies were held last month in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, San Bernardino and San Diego, and smaller protests formed throughout the Golden State.

Sally Estep, president of my local Carlsbad Unified Teachers Association, puts it bluntly: "If you weigh continuing to live with the tax with what is going to happen if we let it expire, there is no comparison. Letting it expire will decimate our education system." 

So, I am compelled to ask: Do we really value education in our state, and in our nation?

Whatever your political leanings, whatever your view on the "best" kind of education -- public or private schooling, homeschooling, traditional or alternative approaches -- and whatever you think about teachers unions, you likely agree that education is important. Politicians in both (all) parties spout this. We cannot expect the generations to come to create a stable economy, peaceful global relations or a sustainable environment if they are not given the opportunity to be educated. Our nation and democracy essentially rest on this belief.

And, yet, we are not putting our money where our values claim to be.

Riane Eisler argues in The Real Wealth of Nations, based on her three decades of ground-breaking research, that societies which truly value -- as in, invest in -- their human capital (e.g., their children, and the care and educating of them) have strikingly higher quality of life and economic stability across the board. Historically, those societies that ignore these values eventually collapse. Eisler reminds us that economic systems are human-made -- we have the choice, like the choice before California right now, to change them. Will we?

I am blessed to be married to an innovative educator (Alex Kajitani, who was selected as the 2009 California Teacher of the Year, and a Top 4 Finalist for National Teacher of the Year) and to be the daughter of innovative educators. I have written professionally about education since my internship at the now-defunct Teacher Magazine in 1994. We are a family who believes in the incalculable value of education for everyone.

And, yet, in all the conversations my family has had, as we watch the California public schools (which Alex and I both attended from elementary through high school) freefall, and as we explore alternative education for our own kids, we simply cannot see how losing quality public education in our state is going to help anyone. Even if the public education system needs to be revamped -- which I would argue that it most certainly does -- we must not sacrifice an entire generation of California's children in the process of revamping it. Letting this "all-cuts" budget pass would sacrifice those six million students. 

So, whatever you believe about education, I urge you to get informed about what is happening to California public schools right now -- and the schools in your own area. I invite you to get involved in re-envisioning education in our country, and in this State of Emergency, in some way (attend events, contact your lawmakers, spread the word), to help give all students better options and opportunities, and to give all teachers the tools and support needed to teach well. I ask you to think long and hard about what the future of California -- and our nation -- will look like if our public schools go down in flames. 

It's not a bad dream, and it's not a joke. California's public education system is hanging in the balance here, now, and it is up to us to decide what we truly value, and if we will do anything about it.