I'm going up to Sacramento today, in the midst of the worst economic crisis in California since the Great Depression, to urge our legislators not to continue to gut education in California. March 4 is a statewide (and apparently nationwide) day of strikes and protests against public education cuts from K-12 through higher education. It is not an easy sale. More Californians are out of work than at any time since WWII. The State's income and real estate based revenue stream has dwindled and our safety net spending for all categories of need have risen to unprecedented levels. The budget is bleeding red from every pore. Let's be honest here, I'm also an interested party (or stakeholder as we like to call ourselves) with a job in the UC system and two kids in Berkeley public schools.
For what it's worth, here's my pitch for education (although I'm going to focus on higher education, the same points apply to k-12).
It's not about today. It's about tomorrow. We are still riding on the good decisions made by people who are mostly now dead (Governors like Earl Warren and Pat Brown, may they rest in peace). What can we decide today to make sure California's promise is there tomorrow?
Much has been made of the fact that the portion of public spending on higher education and the prison system are roughly on par, compared to periods as recently as a decade ago when higher education received twice as much or more than corrections (Sac Bee Chart). That is a sad and revealing fact about our state. I moved here to go to college in 1977, stunned to find this Golden state with its amazing universities and gleaming infrastructures (BART had just opened a few years earlier) hidden at the end of the continent like the proverbial pot of Gold at the rainbow's end. In those storied days California spent more than five times more on higher education than it did on prisons. But while it makes a great rhetorical point, obsessing about what Sora Han and Kate Kenne of UC Irvine call the "prison/education binary" is also a misleading one.
The real problem is not that corrections costs as much as higher education these days. Considering that we've incarcerated nearly six times the number of Californians we did when I moved here, it's not surprising, and it's not enough (as federal courts have ruled). The real danger is that continuation of the present penal policies could see us a decade from now spending 5 times on prisons what we do on higher education. That could happen even without increasing the number of prisoners simply because the health costs of our prisoners is escalating out of control and will grow even higher as our draconian sentences keep prisoners locked up during their low crime/high medical cost middle and old age.
To sustain and ultimately increase our capacity to invest in education, and other vital needs like infrastructure and health care, we need to dramatically improve the efficiency of our approach to public safety. Our "prison first" policy of recent decades has concentrated California's social problems in an environment where it is most expensive and least effective to solve them. The ways of unwinding this catastrophe are broad indeed and should involve the best minds in the public and private sector. But they cannot be solved by ignoring the deficit in social control capacity in California communities that have suffered from decades of private disinvestment and public neglect.
In the short term, closing poorly designed and unsustainable prisons and releasing thousands of our aging "lifers" can produce real savings for the budget (by avoiding court ordered hospital construction). But those of us committed to education should not seek to grab those funds (it will be enough that the state will stop raiding education to pay for incarceration). That money should be shifted to California's vital but invisible county governments, where instead of the blunt but expensive tool of state prison, public safety can be pursued efficiently and precisely through targeted strategies like probation, after school programming, community policing, drug treatment, mental health treatment, and jail.
In the long term, this sustainable public safety model will generate billions of dollars in budget savings to invest in education, and assure a far more diverse flow of students to California's colleges and universities. But the most important reason to do it is that local agencies know where the crime problems are and how to solve them, we can have less crime in California and save money.