Alan Bonsteel, M.D. - Contributor
[Courtesty of California
Parents for Educational Choice]
Bonsteel, M.D., is president of California Parents for Educational
Choice. The organization's Web site is www.cpeconline.org.
[go to Bonsteel index]
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
agonizing decisions that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the
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
2003 California Parents for Educational Choice