This fall, my wife and I joined millions of families across California in the annual tradition of taking our son to his first day of school. I wish you could have been there to witness the energy, love and excitement pouring in and out of this Oakland public institution. A universal feeling of common purpose emanated from the colorful classrooms to the bustling hallways and school yard. All around people exchanged names, handshakes, kisses or hugs. Parent volunteers welcomed new families like ours and answered endless questions. Kids reunited with their classmates after a long summer break. And my son, an incoming kindergartener, met his first K-12 teacher, ever.
In moments like these, all dreams seem possible.
But as I’ve come and gone through the hallways of my son’s school since that first day, a few postings soliciting fundraising volunteers have caught my eye. Like many others, our school relies on parent-run fundraisers to pay for certain educational services, equipment and even personnel. With two-thirds of the student population classified as socioeconomically disadvantaged, I can’t help but wonder if my son’s school receives sufficient financial resources from the state to provide every child with a basic quality education.
The answer is certainly no. A recent report reveals that my son’s school receives 13% less state funding per student than the average Oakland school, and 10% less than the average school in California. That’s not good news when you consider that our state ranks 46 out of 50 states in per-pupil spending and is last in student-to-teacher ratios. In fact, a study this year by the California School Boards Association argues that the state would need to spend $22 to $44 billion more annually to ensure that every child has a quality opportunity to learn. Is it a surprise then that California 4th graders rank 50th in reading and 49th in math?
With statistics like these, dreams become wishful thinking.
Those dreams became even harder to fathom when, by a 4-3 vote, this year the California Supreme Court refused to hear a major school funding lawsuit, Campaign for Quality Education v. California. The suit, brought by Public Advocates on behalf of parents and student plaintiff groups, alleged that the state’s failure to adequately fund its public schools violated the state constitution’s guarantee of education as a fundamental right. Alarmingly, the Court’s refusal to hear the appeal left in place a lower court decision that concluded there is no minimum level of educational quality guaranteed by the right to an education.
Are we to believe that a “fundamental right” can be that hollow?
Is a child’s right merely to occupy a seat in a classroom no matter how underfunded the school may be? If so, please explain that to all of the parents who showed up at our school. Tell that to the immigrant mother who spent several of her seamstress paychecks on back-to-school supplies and clothes for her two young daughters. Explain that to the thousands of foster parents in California who lovingly pack school lunches every morning, or to the countless grandmothers who make sure their grandkids do their homework after dinner. Go ahead, explain it to them because I don’t know how to. Our state’s highest court has turned a deaf ear to my child’s school and on thousands of other schools, and neither tears nor protests will ever capture my disappointment.
Without adequate funding, public schools like my son’s will fail to prepare most of its students for college and career, especially its black and brown pupils. Too many of them – despite best efforts by parents and teachers – will fall behind by fourth grade and even more by eighth grade. So yes, I will most definitely sign up and volunteer to raise funds for my son’s school. But that’s not a long-term solution. Perhaps next year, when its back-to-school season, my wife and I will not only exchange hugs with other families, but we’ll also collect signatures. Because one way or another, we must vindicate our children’s right to a quality education.
If we don’t, then what’s all the back-to-school enthusiasm really for?