05/24/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

California's Third-World Public Schools Threaten All of Us

Shin splints throbbing and so sweat-soaked I could have been swimming instead of jogging, I've just finished another training run. When I resumed jogging after a several-year lapse, I didn't realize it would be so humbling. But it's get back in shape by mid-May or watch passively as California's public schools continue their collapse into third-world status. The sight scares me, because this educational catastrophe threatens to cost California and America much of our next generation of leadership.

On May 19, Propositions 1A, 1B, and 1C go before Californians in a referendum. Voting yes on the three prevents state lawmakers from further pillaging the public education budget. The weekend before the vote, teachers, students, parents and administrators from California's founding public charter school, the San Carlos Charter Learning Center, will run a 140-mile relay to Sacramento to capture attention to the compelling need to vote "yes."

As the school director, I'll be among the runners in what we're calling the Run for Funds, no matter how much my shins hurt. Because what's happening to public schools is a lot more painful. And since the San Carlos Charter Learning Center is the state's original charter, a form of public school in California, we believe we have a mission to literally lead a charge on behalf of all public education.

California ranks at the bottom of all states in its investment per student per year; cost-adjusted annual spending is about $2,000 below the national average. Unless dramatic action is taken, including voting yes on the three propositions, there's no hope this disaster will ease.

Of course, numbers don't mean much unless you see their impact up close. We do. At our school, we've cut back on Spanish classes, we're eliminating library programs, and more of the curriculum is at risk. For this reason, we've made the run to Sacramento a fundraiser for our school as well as a call for action on public education. But our woes illustrate what public schools face statewide. Across California, language, phys-ed, music, art, and after-school programs are gone, to name just some of what's been cut. Class sizes are swelling to as much as 40 kids.

Sure, schools still teach the basics of reading, writing, and math. But having visited educational systems around the globe, I can tell you that merely offering the basics puts us on par with second-world societies and we're quickly sliding lower. It's frightening, because besides the sad implications for the individual children in our charge, it means America is losing many of its next inventors, visionaries and leaders.

A large number of the axed programs are in the category of "enrichment," often sneered at as frills. But it's exactly these classes that transform youth into the kind of people our nation needs to guide its future. When children are only instructed in the basics, they become functional workers, capable of executing directed tasks, but unable to imagine and bring to life new possibilities.

Enrichment programs, on the other hand, evoke passion, creativity, and drive to succeed, no matter how difficult. Think of the child who loves softball so much she'll throw the ball a thousand times, even in the worst weather, to master her pitch, or the youngster who discovers a passion for guitar and practices for hours to get his fingering right. This fire, this drive, this desire to succeed are the traits they'll use as adults to invent new technologies regardless of setbacks, to solve the most challenging of dilemmas, and to lead others to achieve, despite the difficulty.

Large class sizes also snuff out vital creative passion. Put one teacher in a room of three-dozen-plus youngsters, and the priority becomes keeping the class under control, with teaching by rote a central tool in this process. While rote instruction is the easiest way to impart information to a large group, it's the worst way to foster imagination and problem-solving.

Why should the rest of America care about public education funding in California? At $1.5 trillion annually, California is by far the nation's most dominant economy. Past investment in public schools yielded the brainpower, creativity, and leadership skills that created this largesse. California's sinking educational commitment will whack a large hole in America's entire fortunes, one that will be irreparable for at least a generation.

When a problem arises, you can run towards it to try to fix it, or you can turn your back and walk away. Californians, please vote yes on Propositions 1A, 1B, and 1C. And if you'd like to become involved with this effort to make public education a priority, please e-mail: