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Alan Bonsteel, M.D. - Contributor
[Courtesty of California Parents for Educational Choice]

Dr. Alan Bonsteel, M.D., is president of California Parents for Educational Choice. The organization's Web site is [go to Bonsteel index]

The Bogus 'Books Not Bars' Push
Prisons hardly filled up because of school spending cuts - there weren't any…

[Alan Bonsteel, M.D] 1/2/04

With the agonizing decisions that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature now face as they wrestle with the largest budget deficit in state history, a "Books Not Bars" movement has emerged in California. The movement's advocates say we should slash spending on prisons, which have seen an eightfold explosion in numbers of convicts in the last 20 years, and redirect the money to fix our decrepit public schools.

Who wouldn't, after all, prefer to spend money on education rather than incarcerating convicts?

The problem, though, is that this argument has cause and effect reversed. It wasn't that we started spending too much on prisons and cut back on spending on schools. A look at the record shows that despite generous increases in K-12 spending, our public schools still tanked for reasons that had nothing to do with money. And the resulting skyrocketing in our California high- school dropout rate is what crammed our prisons beyond capacity.

Our California high-school graduation rate peaked at 76 percent in 1975. Despite a more than 30 percent increase in K-12 per-student spending in constant, inflation-adjusted numbers in the intervening years, by 2002 our high-school graduation rate had plummeted to 69.6 percent - meaning that more than 30 percent of our kids are not graduating with a four-year high school diploma.

Although no one knows for sure the precise number, well over half of California's prisoners are high- school dropouts. The relationship is a no-brainer: more dropouts, more criminals; more criminals, more prisons.

If we had quality public schools with roofs that didn't leak and toilets that worked, we could nibble away a little at that 30 percent dropout rate. But what would really make the difference is giving kids options. Our current system of factory-style, one-size-fits-all public schools makes a take-it-or-leave-it offer to our kids and, not surprisingly, a staggeringly high number do choose to leave.

Imagine if we instead offered our teen-agers and their families the dignity and the autonomy of freedom of choice, allowing them to choose a school in which they feel a connection. Imagine if they could choose from among schools that specialized in the arts or science or drama.

We know already that California's schools of choice - charter and private schools - offer a sense of belonging, and sometimes even family, that keeps their kids in school.

The most important attribute of any school is the students' experience of community, that feeling of belonging, the camaraderie of learning, and the knowledge that not only are the teachers there for them, but their families are also involved and will be heard. It is this unique quality one finds in schools of choice that makes the battle for school choice so passionate, so much more than simply an accounting of better results at lower cost.

There is a creativity, an energy, a vitality in schools of choice. There is a commitment that comes from having freely chosen. The right to choose carries with it a dignity, a shared purpose.

Schools of choice will bring us together. And, of course, if they can do that, it goes without saying that they can also keep our kids out of jail.

The four greatest crises facing California are all intimately interrelated: the collapse of our public schools, our disastrous high- school dropout rate, our skyrocketing numbers of incarcerated convicts and our budget crisis. I think that Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his struggle to get our state back on track, will quickly find that school choice is the one road that leads to solutions for all of California's greatest challenges.

This opinion piece first appeared in the Orange County Register.

copyright 2003 California Parents for Educational Choice




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