California Kids, Use Your Power

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Dear California Kids,

Don’t let us adults destroy your futures!

This moment gives you unprecedented power to fix what’s wrong with how California treats kids. I am begging you to use it. 

Before COVID-19, California was shortchanging its 9.1 million children in education and health. Now in crisis, the state’s adults are conspiring to make things even worse—and without consulting you. The governor’s new budget proposal cuts $15.1 billion from schools and guts other programs you depend on. 

But you can stop this—because education can’t restart without your consent. This applies to distance learning, which can’t work if you refuse to sign on to the Internet, as well as to physical school reopenings, which can’t happen unless you agree to return on campus. 

This gives you financial leverage, because California school funding is based on daily attendance. If you stay home, or refuse to open educational apps, school districts won’t have the money operate, because you are absent. 

If schools can’t fully open, neither can the California economy. Checkmate, grownups.

I know you want to go back to school, and that skipping class feels irresponsible. But one irony of these times, when you can’t protest together in person, is that truancy might be your most responsible course.  And right now is the moment to organize and pressure your elders. A student-led movement could dictate the terms of the school return and budget— if it could credibly threaten a statewide student strike in the fall.

What should your demands be? You should figure those out for yourselves. But the picture of how California treats children is not pretty.  

The 2020 California Children’s Report Card, from the non-partisan Children Now, offers a comprehensive review of your horror show. California ranks so low in education funding that fewer than half of you meet state standards in English Language Arts and Mathematics. And your generation has some of the biggest student achievement gaps—by race and poverty—in the country.

California leaders love to tout the health insurance they’re providing children, but they rarely mention that you’re not getting enough actual health care. The state ranks especially low on giving kids preventive health screenings, dental care, nutrition assistance, and mental health and substance abuse services. 

California is also awful at child care and special education. Elected officials have been promising universal preschool for 20 years without delivering it. And the state is the worst at the country at staffing schools. Sixty percent of your school districts don’t have even one full-time nurse. The student-to-counselor ratio is 600 to 1.

You can’t do much about this because adults deny you democratic representation. You constitute 23 percent of California residents but can’t vote or hold elected office. As a result, you have to suffer under funding formulas and laws made without your assent, and often before you were born.  

In this extraordinary moment, there are many demands you could make. You could refuse to return to campus or sign onto Google Classroom until all the proposed cuts to schools and children’s programs are reversed. You could require the state to meet the national average for funding every children’s programs. You also could demand that the state abandon its current education funding formula—which is based on tax revenues—and instead fund schools based on your actual educational needs—which would require at least 25 percent more spending on schools.  

You also might demand voting rights or youth parliaments, like other countries have. And to lead your movement, you might lean on foster kids, who, through the youth-led California Youth Connections, have secured important reforms of their system . CYC’s stated vision “is that all foster youth will be equal partners in contributing to all policies and decisions made in their lives.” The same should apply to all kids.

Some adults will dismiss your threatened strike as immature. Ignore them. Adults are already making that very same threat. The L.A., San Diego, Long Beach, San Francisco, Oakland, and Sacramento school districts just threatened stay close this fall unless they get more state funds.

One other thing: If you have to strike, you don’t have to stop getting an education. Schools around the country are offering excellent distance-learning curricula for free online. Your education no longer depends on the whim of your local schools.  You have options now. 

With greater choice comes more power. Use it. The only people who can save California’s kids are California’s kids.

Sincerely,

Joe Mathews

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square

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