At this festive time of year, one of my favorite short stories is “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens. In this story, Dickens reflects on a sour man named Ebenezer Scrooge who finds little joy in any aspect of life and who decries Christmas as a humbug. Then he meets the Ghosts of Christmas past, present and future and his perspective changes. He becomes a kinder, gentler version of himself and finds the capacity to be generous to others.
When I think of Christmas past in California, I think of an amazing generation of Californians emerging from our nation’s worst depression and the world’s most terrible war, and generously investing in K-12 education and in an incredible system of community colleges, state universities and a University of California that were individually and collectively the envy of the nation by 1965.
In the years since 1985, the systems have each suffered disinvestment. Our K-12 schools, which were fifth in per-pupil investment, dropped as low as 50th, but now linger around 42nd, adjusted for the cost of living in California. Our community colleges were free until 30 years ago, and the modest fees charged for CSU and UC have skyrocketed.
Sixteen states have mandatory kindergarten, but some California leaders say we cannot afford it. Preschool is more readily available not only in other affluent states like New York and Connecticut, but also in historically undereducated states like Georgia and Oklahoma. California is tragically underinvested in preschool.
Our child development services are inadequate and while we have First 5, remember it was not an initiative of the governor and the Legislature. It was the brainchild of Rob Reiner, and I was proud to be his honorary co-chair in 1998 as we taxed tobacco to help the youngest among us.
When the governor and the Legislature got in a financial hole a few years later, they dishonestly attempted to redirect the money from First 5 and child development to balance the budget. They had to get the voters’ approval and the voters turned them down by a vote of nearly 2-to-1. Principled voters knew that our children should come first.
The ghost of Christmas present leaves our children standing in a deep educational trench when they should be lifted up, knowing that the rest of the world is focused on and investing in education.
Now we rank near the top in per-prisoner expenditure and near the bottom in per-pupil investment. We hear too many politicians say they are doing the best they can, and those who are fighting for education often stand alone and cannot get the support they need. That is not what the greatest generation of Christmas past said and did.
What does the future hold? That remains to be seen. The generation of Christmas past raised resources to pay for what mattered up front when they could.
Our future was bright and beautiful because a generation of warriors and workers, who had suffered great deprivation, dreamed great dreams for future generations and invested accordingly. In a global economy, for us to be miserly, petty and small where child development, education and children’s health are concerned is to not have understood the lesson of Scrooge.
This is not just about economic health; education also addresses the goals of crime prevention, full employment and civil society. It is about the general welfare and the blessings of liberty.
We must act now for the future. It is my hope that the leadership of both political parties will come together on behalf of California and its children – and dream of a future where all children have a future full of possibilities, as I did.
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