Californians must come together to improve our schools

By Marcus Ruiz Evans

Author, California's Next Century 2.0

California schools have lost the golden luster that they had in the 50’s and 60’s.  Sure there are pockets of excellence -- many California public schools top national rankings and the UC system still produces cutting edge research.  And yes the golden era wasn’t golden for everyone -- particularly if you weren’t a male of a palish pink hue.  Yet despite all the qualifiers, two simple facts remain: California public schools were once unequivocally the best in the nation, and today they are far from it.  What happened?

Many blame policies like Proposition 13, which changed the ways schools were funded, or the legalization of collective bargaining for teachers unions, which changed the way schools are managed.  The real answer is simultaneously far simpler and far more complex than those structural tweeks would have it.  Californians simply care less about the quality of education that the average California child receives.

Sure we talk a good game and a large chunk of the state budget goes to education.  Yet the commitment by local communities through business, education nonprofits and other neighborhood groups varies widely across the state.  These organizations provide the critical opportunities that make school relevant, build social capital, and frankly make learning fun.  Put bluntly, schools cannot prepare children to become productive members of society if adults don’t do their part to include all of California’s children.

Yet rather than coming together as a village of Californians to raise our children, we’ve implicitly accepted the reality today that a child’s opportunity is determined by the zip code they’re born into. This fractured commitment to public schools is directly tied to the changing face of California.  

In the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s immigrants moved into California from Latin America and Asia in increasingly record numbers.  What was once a largely homogenous, largely white state quickly became the poster child of a newly diverse America.  Californians with money moved to “the better part of town”, paid more for a home, and enrolled their child in a better funded public school, or paid for their child to go to a private school.  

California's Population by Race / Ethnicity

Source: Public Policy Institute of California

Source: Public Policy Institute of California

When University tuition went up and up and up, Californians with money largely did not complain, because they could afford the fee increases. It was the poor and below middle class who could not afford to move to a better area to receive good schooling or afford to be part of a private school, or afford the tuition hikes of universities. So you began to have a permanent underclass, one that would never receive a good public education to start with and then would not be able to afford going to a university full time, or the multiple amount of years it takes to complete a degree.

The majority of Californians were quietly acquiescent. They watched as gangs went from being something that only existed in the inner city of LA and Oakland to something that every single city in California had to deal with. They watched as their public schools were rated the worst in all of America, year after year, decade after decade. They watched as areas of concentrated poverty went from being a place that was not pretty to drive through to being a place that was literally a death sentence to drive through at night.  They watched as concentrated poverty also spread to almost every city in California where originally this was something only found in the “big cities” of California.

The majority of Californians watched “things change” in our state, because they felt isolated from the problems. They just stopped going to parts of the downtown of every major city in the State, they just accepted that gangs were part of life, and shootings and death and no go areas of every city. Upper middle class Californians for the most part were able to feel isolated from these problems despite their creeping expansion into all areas of life, because poor education for the overall mass of Californians did not affect the pocket book, the check at the end of the day of the well to do, upper middle class, well educated Californians.  

This presents a huge danger for all of California -- upper middle class included -- as the book A New California Dream warns us: “If California continues down this path, it will soon enough cease to be an identified place and transform into a primitive collection of tribes— ethnic groups, socioeconomic classes, business organizations, labor unions, environmental interests, and other groups that care primarily about protecting their turf.”

Upper middle class Californians can still afford a good education for themselves, and for their children, and afford to live most of their life in a nice safe part of the city. Many don’t believe that the abundance of Californians without access to high quality education affects their financial well-being over the short or long term.  And therein lies the answer. 

So how do you get the majority of upper middle class and wealthy Californians to believe that their economic success is directly linked to the availability of quality education for all Californians -- rich, poor, black, white, brown, whatever?  

This is the secret laid out in my new book “California’s Next Century 2.0”:  diversity is not merely soft feel goodery that we must tolerate but rather the hard nosed key to our economic future.  Consider the fact that:

A)  People who come from another country and keep connections to their original country are economic lifelines between nations.  “human bridges”, “Umbrella people”, or simply “immigrants”, whatever you call it, these people are pipelines for ideas, information, news, money, loans, investment, and business opportunities.  Nations who recognize this and encourage and support their immigrant community can use them to dramatically increase the wealth of their nation.

B) People who are exposed to many other cultures, and languages and types of people grow up or eventually develop a capability to relate and understand even other cultures that they have never meet before. This ability is critical for trade and building economic connections in our globalized world economy.

C) Success in the knowledge economy increasingly demands creativity and higher order thinking skills.  Experience with diversity gives people more mental building blocks -- perspectives, attitudes, modes of thought -- to combine and create the new ideas and innovations that push humanity forward.

California's incredible diversity positions the state perfectly as a global trade and diplomatic hub going into the next century.  California has incredible diversity.  Think of the UN building in New York City stretched to be the size of the average large nation state such as Italy, France, Germany, England, Turkey, or Pakistan.  And we have an incredible opportunity to capitalize on California’s diversity and immense other resources to build a good and global commonwealth -- the shining city on a hill America has long aspired to but never quite achieved.

Yet we cannot ignore the hard realities of racial, class, and other tribal affiliations.  As Stag Hunt Editor Patrick Atwater's A New California Dream reminds us:

“Californians need a way to remember that we are all in this together, bound as we all are by the laws and geographic confines of this place, and that therefore “our own” is ultimately all of us—white, black, brown, public, private, labor, green, business, whatever.”

As trite as it may sound, our children are that reminder.  They solidify our commitment to each other and symbolize our shared future as a society.  If California is the dominant center for global economic traffic and international negotiation and communication, then all immigrants who live in California are important and all children who grow up in California are important.

So recent Latino and Asian immigrants need to succeed in school not only because it’s intrinsically worthwhile but because that’s critical in securing our economic future.  Losing or underutilizing links to foreign countries cannot be considered acceptable.  

Pete Wilson’s infamous 1994 television ad attacked illegal immigrants with an unforgettable image of Mexicans running across a freeway while a narrator dramatically intoned “they keep coming.”  Law and order is critical to a free society.  But the ad did more than advocate that.  It drove a wedge between Mexican and white Californians.

Instead we need to be saying “they keep coming” and may more keep coming to California!  May people from around the world freely and legally come to California.  We need to shout it from the rooftops!  That is how we make California the shining city on a hill that it’s positioned to be.  Ronald Reagan, a Californian through and through, frequently spoke of a “shining city on a hill” in his speeches.  

“ was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”

May Californians of all colors and creeds and classes come together to improve our schools and provide opportunities beyond the school day.  May we find it within ourselves to see that “our children” extends beyond families who look like us or talk like us or live a similar lifestyle to all our neighbors in California.

May we build that shining city on a hill and show the world that we can tap into our common humanity to improve education for all of California’s children.