It is Time Schools Take Precedence Over Prisons

It is fair to say that now is the worst possible time in the history of our state to be a community college student in California. We are caught in the midst of a perfect storm of circumstances that threaten not only our educations and careers, but the viability of the Californian economy for years to come.

In the rough economic conditions of the last year and a half, more and more people are turning to community colleges to get an edge in the finicky job market. Veterans returning from U.S. wars (the cost per week would cover the entire amount cut from California's education system) and newly unemployed workers seek training for new skills at our campuses.

At the same time, California universities are cutting enrollment numbers and raising fees as a result of the cuts. This leads more students into community college out of high school either as a cost-cutting measure or to transfer to a four-year university with limited freshman enrollment.

Add to this the expanding number of current high school students taking higher education classes to make up for the decline in K-12 education and you can understand why SMC had its highest enrollment in history last year.

Unfortunately, due to cuts imposed on our colleges, student services and classes are being cut. Of the $17 billion in cuts from public education mandated by the State Legislature, the California community college system is on the hook for a roughly $500 million reduction from last year. This money is coming from general "apportionment" funds used for equipment, faculty salaries, classes, and other costs like counseling, as well as from "categorical," or project-specific funds. The latter have been slashed by over 40 percent, which includes individual cuts of nearly 50 percent to job training programs, student academic assistance, and transfer services – exactly the programs that would benefit new enrollees.

This vicious cycle of growing demand for diminishing services could spell disaster for our state's economy if allowed to continue. California's job market is increasingly demanding better-educated workers. Some estimates show that California will need 55 percent more workers with college educations in only fifteen years' time. If our educational system cannot accomplish that goal, it may very well lead to stagnation or recession of our state's economy in the near term.

So what can we do?

First of all, we can stop spending so much of our money on prisons. Since 1980, our state's crime rate has remained relatively static, but our prison spending and prison population have both risen by 500 percent. The history involved is long, complicated, and damning, but suffice it to say this stunning and unnecessary increase went forward at the behest of those who stood to profit from the business of locking people up. Regrettably, laws and sentencing regulations have kept pace with new construction, aiming to fill each new prison.

This trend has culminated in a situation in which the majority of our prison population is behind bars for non-violent offenses. Pair that with the startling fact that California is ranked forty-eighth in the U.S. on education spending, but first in prison spending, and our state government's twisted fiscal priorities become evident.

Perhaps if we spent more on educating and less on incarcerating our citizens, we wouldn't have budget shortfalls that threaten to lead more young people in the wrong direction due to lack of educational access.

Second, we can push for greater democracy in our educational systems. This would mean that those who stand to be most affected by administrative decisions – students, faculty, and staff – would have a greater role in making those decisions.

On Thursday, March 4, people across the state and country will call for the immediate rescission of the cuts to education. There will be a rally and teach-in on the quad starting at 11:15 a.m., and at 2 p.m. A free bus will shuttle interested students to the city-wide rally in Pershing Square, returning at 7 p.m.