A student’s plea: Schools need more money – but make sure it gets to us

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M’Kala Payton, a junior at Fremont High in Oakland, has seen her teachers set rat traps in her school and throw away the corpses. Her football team plays on a field that is only 90 yards long. She is learning videography on an outdated camera that takes cassette tapes – and that’s at a so-called specialized “media academy.”

The obstacles M’Kala faces are all too common for low-income students of color. That’s why she joined Youth Together, an East Bay youth leadership organization that is among dozens of groups in the Campaign for Quality Education. And that’s how we met; I am one of the attorneys representing M’Kala and her peers in Campaign for Quality Education v. California, a suit challenging California’s inadequate and inequitable system of school finance as unconstitutional.

M’Kala and I had lunch together at the State Capitol last month. We were there for a Senate hearing on Gov. Jerry Brown’s education budget proposal, which includes a recommendation to switch to a new weighted student funding formula. Later that day, M’Kala and 13 other students and youth organizers bravely stepped up to a Senate hearing room microphone and addressed their legislators face to face, providing compelling testimony before the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee.

She did a great job, but she only had one minute to explain why she and six million other California students need the Legislature’s help – and need it now. I’m sharing our conversation so others can hear more of her story.

Question: What evidence have you seen that low-income schools like yours aren’t getting adequate or equitable funding?

M'Kala Payton

M'Kala Payton

M’Kala: We’re broke and other people aren’t. As part of Youth Together, I once got to compare our school, Fremont, to a school a few miles down the road, Piedmont High. We visited and the environment there was completely different. There was some care put into that school. They have music classes and we don’t, even though we have a whole bunch of rappers and singers at my school who would love to have music. Our creativity is not being utilized. I also saw garbage bins full of books at Piedmont. We don’t have enough books for everybody at my school, and the ones we do have are really old and beat up. Our school facility is garbage compared to theirs, our bathrooms are filthy. I realized that the conditions that are part of my every day are not normal.

In history class, we talk about how there should be no second-class citizens. But at Fremont, we totally feel like second-class citizens. Why can’t we have what the kids at Piedmont have?

What do you think of Governor Jerry Brown’s budget proposal to fund schools according to a weighted student formula?

M’Kala: I have one big problem with it. I want to make sure that the money actually gets spent on us. The way the budget proposal is now, districts with more low-income students and English learners will get more funding – true – but there is nothing in there keeping the districts from using that money however they want. What if they get it, and then don’t end up using it to help the schools with low-income students and English learners? Accountability for how the districts spend the money needs to be in there somewhere, or we won’t make any progress. Low-income students and English language learners will still be at a disadvantage.

Overall, I do think it makes sense to give more to the students who need it most. At Fremont, there are huge numbers of students from low-income backgrounds or who are learning English who have more needs. Weighted student funding would help us catch up – but again, only if the districts actually use the extra money on us.

No matter what, our schools need more funding. We have one counselor for over 160 students. Students are behind on credits, but they are not able to take the classes they need to graduate or to get to college. Our librarian was fired because of the budget cuts.

That’s an interesting take on the governor’s proposal. We’ve heard him say that districts will be held accountable – but he is referring to measuring outcomes after the fact. Seeing if low-income students and English learners have improved on the back end isn’t the same as holding the districts accountable for how they spend the money on the front end. So if your school were to receive additional funding, what do you think it should be spent on?

M’Kala: Besides more counselors, I would spend it on a more rigorous curriculum. I’m a junior, and there’s only one AP course I can take.

Also, I think we should hire a school psychiatrist. The things we have to see and deal with every day are kind of crazy. I’ve had multiple classmates killed in the past two years in shootings and drive-bys. It’s hard to come in and focus on your classes after that.

I’d spend money on a whole new facility. When I come to school every day and it’s dirty and not well taken care of, it doesn’t feel like school. It feels like a jail cell, and I have the urge to walk out.

Why did you get involved with Youth Together?

M’Kala: I feel like some people believe education is a privilege, but it’s not. It’s a right. I shouldn’t have to fight for an education just because I go to Fremont, but I do it because otherwise things are never going to change.

My older sister got a 4.0 all through high school. But when she got to college, she found it difficult to keep up, because Fremont didn’t prepare her for the workload. I know, because I went to 7th grade in Fairfield. When I moved back to Oakland in 9th grade, I was learning the same things I learned in Fairfield. We’re two years behind kids in those places! How are we supposed to succeed?

What are your goals for the future?

M’Kala: I want to be an English teacher. I’ve only had one teacher who had any empathy for me. She taught ethnic studies, and made school feel relevant to me. She’s black like me, she grew up in Watts, and I call her my second mother.

I think that understanding is one of the most important things about being a teacher, and that’s something I want to pass along. In Youth Together, I get to be a part of solving the problem, and that’s something I want to keep doing.

Tara Kini is a staff attorney at Public Advocates Inc. and a former high school teacher. She is part of the team litigating Campaign for Quality Education v. California, a state constitutional challenge to California’s inadequate and inequitable school finance system. M’Kala Payton is a junior at Fremont High School’s Media Academy and a member of Youth Together.

20 Comments

  1. My heart breaks for M’Kala. It kills me that she and her friends do not have the materials that they need, a great music instruction program, and a clean, safe campus that shows that we, as a community, a state, and a nation value them. Everyone deserves this.
     
    Something she should understand is that the financial disparity between her school and Piedmont is not state funding, but community funding. Piedmont has an active Parents Club that raises $500,000 a year that they pour into the school for additional teachers, books, computers, and yes, the music program.
     
    You can view their financials here: http://www.piedmont.k12.ca.us/phs/pdf/parents/july_dec_2011_phs.pdf
     
    Yes, the state should be funding this. But, she will probably graduate before that happens. Perhaps some great adults in Oakland can work on helping her and her friends build a fundraising campaign to get some of those needs met at her school. And I hope y’all in Oakland are taking the time to understand how the money the district does get is being spent so that what money is there is well prioritized at the school board level.
     
    After all, accounting is much more interesting when it is affecting you personally, and it’s a valuable life skill.

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  2. Tara, thank you for sharing this.  We should hear student voices more frequently in these forums (including my blog in this critique).
    As for the point about the disparity in funding having a local rather than state source, I think that’s a secondary issue.  M’Kala’s observations about her school are clearly showing us a run-down, broken, and inadequate system – to the point that we need lawsuits and must hope for legal remedies where political remedies are absent.  If the state upheld its obligation to Fremont High School, it’s true that there would still be issues of equity to address.  Sadly, we’re far from even addressing adequacy, let alone equity.  Both are worth pursuing, and I hope that Campaign for Quality Education, Youth Together, Public Advocates, and all Californians who care about these issues will keep fighting for what’s right.
     

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  3. David–Thanks for your thoughtful comments.  We’re always eager to help connect bloggers with students and parents whose voices are underrepresented in these education policy debates, even though they are the ones most affected by the decisions that are made.  TOPEd has been a great forum for highlighting these perspectives!  If you or other bloggers reading this are interested in having student or parent guest pieces, please be in touch and we can help connect you: tkini@publicadvocates.org

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    • This is a great post for all parents with an IEP. When we were in our third or fotruh year of IEPs we had a change of administration with the school and the new IEP Team was being difficult to work with. We extended our meeting because of an impasse. We arrived at the next meeting rolling in a stack of boxes three feet high filled with paperwork from past meetings. We had homework assignments, report cards and every piece of communication and the IEPs on top. When we started to lay it all out on the table they quickly changed their attitude and we got the services we wanted with almost no fuss. Having this kind of ammunition may be part bluff but it actually works.

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  4. El, the state’s broken funding system is what allows the wide disparities between Piedmont and Oakland, which are far greater than what your post suggests.  (Piedmont passed a parcel tax that funds an additional $3,600 per student in Piedmont and contributes almost 1/3 of the district’s budget).
    The state has a constitutional duty to provide M’Kala’s district with sufficient funding to provide her and her classmates with access to a meaningful education that prepares them for college and career.  It owes that constitutional minimum to students in Oakland as well as in Piedmont.  The programs funded by the PTA and parcel tax should be icing on the cake—not funding the basic flour and eggs of education.

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  5. I completely agree that the state has an obligation to provide sufficient funding.  I also completely agree that they are not providing that.
     
    I also want a solution for these kids *now* and frankly adequate state funding is not in the immediate horizon.
     
    Some of the issues are structural, no question. The size of the field may not be fixable. But the rats? There is no excuse for that. What is a higher priority for the district budget than excluding rats from the classrooms?

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  6. thank you again tara… for letting my voice be heard!

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  7. M’Kala, I hope you will write here more often.
     
    I see that a couple of schools in Oakland have successfully purchased digital video cameras via Donors Choose. Your videography class might have success with that as well. The digital cameras would make it easier and faster to tell your story to the world via blogging etc, which may in turn help with additional fundraising for your school. Start with the “small ask” and leverage it into more. Every time people can make a personal connection with your school and your fellow students, and believe that a small amount out of their pocket will make a concrete positive difference, you will benefit.

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  8. First, congratulations, M’Kala, for caring about your education, for making it through in spite of the poor conditions, and for telling your story here.
     
    I wish that education funding were equal, and I wish that it were all from taxes. (Since California voters have said again and again that they want services like public education but are not willing to pay the full cost, quality public education is now not a basic statewide expectation, but rather a local option. Increasing reliance on donations produces instability and substitutes private influence for democratic control. With DonorsChoose, for example, it is the donors who choose.)

    I would also like provide a counterpoint, as food for thought. I teach at a declining public high school in the San Francisco Bay Area. Our population is not much different, socially or academically, from the population of M’Kala’s school, and indeed, we’re only a few miles apart geographically. We don’t have resources like computers or video cameras for students, but the more basic resources that we provide are abused and wasted. I go through hundreds of pencils a month; each day I pick up ones that have been snapped and thrown on the floor. I can no longer leave out a self-service pile of note paper; students turn that into paper balls and paper planes. Our building is old and poorly maintained, but students exacerbate the problem by drawing on the walls, and by keying, scratching and etching glass, tile, blackboards, doors and furniture. Tardiness runs at 30%, homework completion at 20%, and in-class iPod/iPhone usage at 40%. Clearly, many students choose not to take advantage of what is provided to them. If ordinary taxpayers could see what a typical public high school is like, they would feel justified in further reducing their financial contribution.

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  9. Hi Paul.. I have to disagree that taxpayers should feel justified in reducing their financial contribution to education based on whether some of the kids seem to take it for granted. The fact is those kids have no choice in the matter. Not only do we have compulsory education but we’ve stripped high school education of many of the programs that would otherwise keep a lot of these kids interested.
    I also disagree that the costs of pencils and paper and even paint should be relevant when talking about the definition of education quality. The average district probably spends well over 80% of their unrestricted general fund revenue on compensation, with the vast majority of that going to teachers. Cut funding and the kids will still get pencils and paper (whether the state pays for that or not). What they wont get is as many teachers or as many programs.

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  10. I think the only way to succeed is to get the kids and the parents and the community to care about the school, to care about the physical plant, and to be invested in its success. What I do not know is how to create that.
     
    My community is unusual in that most of the people in the community attended our local school and/or had kids and grandchildren attend. That’s not generally true for urban schools, where likely a majority of the local community have never set foot on the campus.
     
    I wonder if opening schools as community centers at night and on weekends, such that it’s a place that the whole community benefits from and embraces, would be an option. Adults won’t tolerate horrific bathrooms and leaky ceilings, and they typically have more power to change it. It could also possibly generate additional funding to maintain those buildings.

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  11. el, I think some communities are trying to do this, perhaps in partnership with their cities. However, I think one problem is the question of liability (booo). Another is the question of safety for the kids.
    I have long thought that one of the biggest barriers to schools being treated like a normal part of the community is that what is considered mostly normal behavior is not acceptable on school grounds. In our area, a community organization recently had a fundraiser for public schools, but because they wanted to serve wine, they could not have the fundraiser at a public school. They did it at a local private school instead. Oh, the irony!

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  12. Hello, Navigio. I agree with what you’ve said about stripped-down programs and about the main effect of budget cuts: reduced staff, especially teachers. What I’m saying is that students’ (and, to incorporate el’s idea, families’ and community members’) attitude toward current facilites, supplies and services influences public support. The waste, the vandalism, the tardiness and the low effort are disturbing. “I won’t pay for this” becomes a logical response. (Disinvestment in education probably carries other costs, such as crime and economic decline, but diffuse, delayed costs aren’t on the popular radar screen. American culture is decidedly  individualistic and present-moment-oriented.)

    My response to M’Kala’s plea is, “Are your classmates using existing resources wisely?” At mine and so many other urban schools, the answer would be no.

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  13. Paul, I would like to offer some food for thought.
    I believe that children are reflections of their parents, teachers, and the society at large because we adults are responsible for them, not the other way around. We are the sources of wisdom, direction and guidance for these youth.Just as the state is responsible for providing a quality education and other social supports to all of its citizens.
    If the young people are wasting dwindling resources, in what ways have we taught them this mentality? In what ways do they see this modeled before them? In what ways are they themselves being wasted, snapped as the pencils you write about, by a bureaucratic, unresponsive, and wasteful system that fails to nurture their creative potentials? Perhaps they mirror what they feel.
    I teach at the school that Mkala speaks of. Students in this school do waste what they have at times, but they do not do this in my classroom. Because my expectations for them do not allow it.
    I challenge you to see the opportunity for your students’ growth, rather than another closed door for them.

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  14. hi Paul
    to answer your question, no everyone is not using the resources wisely, but i have to agree with my teacher. if students felt respected at school by their teachers, maybe they would respect the materials that are given to them.

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  15. @ Candice and M’Kala, thanks for your comments. I agree that respect is a two-way street, and that good students rise to the standards that good teachers set for them. I fight very hard to hold doors open for students. It is admittedly frustrating when, despite calm, respectful treatment, a clean and orderly classroom (which I clean myself, on personal time), high academic standards, and nicer materials (which I purchase myself), many of my students come late, make a mess, ignore assignments, talk over me, make rude comments to each other and to me, and maintain long-standing patterns of poor academic performance. Parental and community support are externalities that no governmental “system” can fix, and clearly, teacher standards are not enough. At some point, student choices come into play.
     
    My main reason for posting today is to respond to the recent track-back about the honor roll. It is important to recognize students who put in higher-than-average effort under difficult circumstances. Still, the CST results for the Media Academy (Media College Preparatory School) paint a picture of academic distress. The school has virtually no proficient math students, for example. A debate that I often have with administrators, parents and students has to do with the yawning gap between grades (more subjective) and CST scores (more objective, with some caveats). Is it motivating to tell students that they are doing well locally, when, by state-wide standards, they might not be doing so well?

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  16. My name is Todd.  I was inspired by this story.  I  have spent 4 and half years of my life between Iraq and Afghanistan for I love my country.  I have been helping other countries with issue and I have always wanted to help out in a great way in my own country the United States.  I am looking to help out a lot of schools thru out the United States .  Helping schools raise money so that our youth can have a better tomorrow .  It’s a simple concept that works.  What I’m going to do if these schools allow is to tie the worlds  habit of drinking coffee to your schools income. Everybody drinks coffee. So in others if folks continue to drink coffee which you don’t have to remind them to do. With the support of your student body, staff and parents your school will be able to raise a signicant amount of money in a short period of time.
    For more information call
    Todd Jefferson
    (813) 644-2589
    http://www.tajefferson.organogold.com
    Presentation: cupoffreedom.com

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