Commentary: Why You Should Vote for Measure A— Even if You Don’t Have Children in the Public Schools
“What’s that, Mama?” asked my 6-year-old daughter one recent afternoon, as she looked over my shoulder at the newspaper I was reading. She was pointing at a photograph of yet another impromptu street corner shrine in Oakland; a Mickey Mouse doll with “RIP Pooh” scrawled on its shirt, some flowers, an empty, open liquor bottle of the deceased’s preferred brand.
I took a deep breath—and explained to her that when young people are unsuccessful learners, they often get frustrated and don’t finish their education. That then they have trouble finding work which will pay enough to support themselves, and that sometimes they wind up committing crimes to make money, like selling illegal drugs, and that sometimes they are even willing to kill each other over “whose” street corner it is.
Unfortunately, it’s not the first conversation on this subject we’ve had; her cousin, a sweet young man, suffered with the burden of undiagnosed learning disabilities. His path then led him to drug addiction, expulsion from high school, from addiction to drug dealing to petty theft, on into armed robbery, looped in and out of rehab and jail, and ended with his tragic death at 23, leaving a wake of broken hearts behind him. My daughter listened carefully, and then solemnly told me that she thought that she would be a successful learner—which I have every expectation will be true.
We in the Bay Area hear frequent reports on the failed public educational systems all around us—Oakland and Richmond under the mandatory control of the state, San Francisco’s shrinking middle class fighting over the few spots in the top-performing schools, low enrollment leading to widespread school closures in San Francisco and Oakland. The unplanned segregation that results when schools begin to falter and those who have money abandon the public schools altogether, leaving behind those who don’t. The news out there is so uniformly bad, that most of us set off to tour kindergartens with dread, expecting under-performing public schools and steeling ourselves for a tuition indebtedness we had hoped not to incur until college. Except that here in Berkeley we found—really good public schools.
Somehow, in the midst of the bad news all around us is the quiet, seemingly unnoticed success of the Berkeley public schools. The schools are fully subscribed, the class make-up diverse, the buildings well-maintained. The classrooms aren’t crammed—my daughter’s first grade class has 22 kids in it. They are staffed by passionate, caring and talented teachers and principals, and assisted by involved parents. Is it perfect? Of course not. All of the parents, teachers, and principals I have spoken to are deeply concerned about how to close the “achievement gap” between the different ethnic groups. Some children with special needs don’t seem to be getting as many services as they require. Every child would be better served if their families were more involved in their education. However, my observation is that, on the whole, things are very healthy.
So why are Berkeley schools thriving while those around us flounder? There is, of course, a complex matrix of reasons which keeps them healthy and strong. But a critical mass in either direction is a powerful force; we in Berkeley are fortunate that civic leaders in the 1980’s foresaw that the frozen property taxes of Proposition 13 would, if unmitigated, have a devastating effect on our schools, and that they took appropriate steps to safeguard those schools.
Thus was born the Berkeley Schools Excellence Program (BSEP), first passed in 1986, which raises additional funds for the schools through a small additional property tax assessment. The money is specifically used to reduce class sizes—it pays for the salaries of approximately 125 teachers. It pays for libraries and librarians, arts and music and physical education in the elementary schools, teacher training… the list goes on and on. This year the measure is up for renewal, and it’s called “Measure A”. It is not a new or additional tax; it merely continues the same assessment we’ve been paying for the last twenty years. For those of us lucky to have owned our homes for a while, it doesn’t add up to much. And if you’re a renter, it’s free.
There is a group in town trying to get us to vote this measure down. (Interestingly, they want us to vote it down so badly that one of them actually hacked into our PTA’s on-line discussion group last week to proselytize on the subject. Our PTA, which has endorsed Measure A, was not amused.) Roughly, they argue that the school district is not managing the funds wisely, and that the solution to the academic achievement gap is—wait for it—to scrap the funding which shores up our public schools.
Wow. That’s some pretty interesting logic. The way to close the achievement gap is to take away 30 percent of the teachers? How will it serve our underprivileged youth to have 10 more kids in the class, less teacher attention, and no arts or physical education? And I mean no disrespect to the people in our surrounding cities, who I’m sure are trying mightily to solve their educational problems and certainly deserve better, but do we really want to model our schools after those of Oakland and San Francisco, where those with means attend private school and those without are left to struggle alone?
So why should you vote for this measure, even if you don’t have kids in our public schools? In addition to the obvious public good achieved by educating the children of your neighbors, friends, and fellow citizens, there are numerous purely selfish reasons to do so. Do you really want our young people to be unsuccessful learners, left with no choice but to join our thriving underground economy? If you are a property owner, is saving a few bucks a year on your property tax bill worth the loss in value your home will suffer if our schools become, shall we say “unattractive?” What about the ability of the University of California, or Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, or local companies, to attract top talent to town if the schools decline; how will that affect your property values? What effect will it have on your quality of life when your new favorite restaurant closes because disaffected youth have taken back the block and people don’t feel safe there at night anymore? (Maybe you can laugh about that, but in my neighborhood we had to wait years for a restaurant to serve anything past 3 p.m.—no one wanted to come to San Pablo Avenue at night.) These are just a few of the considerations in how one decision affects the whole. As one of my neighbors, who is a teacher, put it: “pay now or pay later.”
The health and strength of our entire community is wrapped up in the success of our public schools. Do not doubt it. I urge you, for your own peace of mind when you go to bed at night, for the pleasure of a healthy community, to vote yes on Measure A.
Christine Staples is a Berkeley resident.