In summary

In budget negotiations, legislators should keep in mind that students need equal access to Advanced Placement classes, sports, theater and STEM classes.

By Cristina De Jesus, Special to CalMatters

Cristina De Jesus is the president and CEO of Green Dot California, serving 11,000 students in 19 Title I secondary schools across South and East Los Angeles, cdejesus@greendot.org.

The past months have been a time of exceptional change and challenge for Green Dot Public Schools – as they have for most organizations, families and communities. 

The weight of responsibility we have felt during this worldwide crisis combined with the widespread disparities in the communities we serve have brought our mission into greater focus.

As we always knew, the teaching we provide in the classroom is critical, but alone it is not nearly enough to bridge the persistent inequities our students and their families face each day. 

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We have seen these inequities in the faces of families lacking healthy food – since the pandemic closed schools, we have served more than 600,000 meals. The digital divide is all too real for our families – we distributed Chromebooks to nearly three-quarters of our 11,200 students and provided 2,500 hotspots to students without reliable, high-speed Internet. 

These numbers are staggering, reflecting the need across California. The pandemic has laid starkly bare the persistence of the divide that cleaves our society and how nefarious its effects are on our health, our employment, where we live and, yes, our interactions with police. All too often, the divide repeats from generation to generation.

And now, when this divide has widened but also finally caught our country’s attention as an inexorable fact of life, California’s leaders face a reckoning about how they intend to respond. 

So far they have made the right decision to prioritize education, though make no mistake, deferring $12 billion in payments to schools means many will have to borrow, make cuts or close. Keeping funding at 2019-20 levels and devoting CARES Act money to the most vulnerable populations weren’t benevolent gestures. They were necessary ones when California’s “have nots” are threatened by record unemployment, lack of social supports and, in the case of COVID-19, death.

To be clear, our public education system isn’t perfect, and it remains far from equitable. But it is the single most important factor in promoting a more just and inclusive society. Given the scale of collective cries against police brutality and systemic discrimination, how we fund our public schools must be at the forefront of any budget discussion.

This debate won’t wait. Come August, another round of excruciating decisions is likely, as the state faces actual revenue figures, not projections. As state leaders wrestle with the dire numbers and the potential for U.S. Senate inaction on the HEROES Act, it is crucial they fully shield education funding supplements for socio-economically disadvantaged students and communities, English Language learners, and homeless and foster youth against any reductions. 

Especially during this pandemic, students deserve opportunities to engage with their teachers and peers in academic discourse. They need counselors to help with college applications and access to health and wellness programs, and after-school opportunities. During the COVID-19 lockdown, we’ve seen how imperative it is to ensure equitable distance learning and provide students with healthy meals and nutrition. Re-opening measures will call for more, not fewer, investments.

If we believe in equity, not merely equality, in education and of opportunity, we need to act forcefully and bravely on that belief. We need to commit to supporting the programs and policies that have been proven to help students of color and students from low-income backgrounds. We need to commit to funding programs that help families support their children’s educations and schools. 

All students should have at least the same access to enrichment opportunities such as Advanced Placement classes (and the money to take the tests), sports, theater and STEM classes. If not more.

And we all must unite in both the belief and the knowledge that these programs are essential and cannot be left to the vagaries of recessions and revenue declines. Otherwise, equity will be nothing more than an empty political catchphrase. 

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Cristina De Jesus served as a member of the Governor’s Task Force on Charter Schools.

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