Back to School in a Failing Society

School bells are ringing again as students are going back to their own daily grind behind the desks at the public schools. Cramming into over-crowded classrooms with insufficient resources, students are facing an uphill battle looking at their future. Parents have to watch their children go out the door into a more dangerous world with less and less prospects for a decent life. It’s back to school time in this failing society.

In many ways the schools that K-12 students attend are run like businesses. In any business, fewer workers doing the work means more profit for the owners. It’s the same in the classroom with teachers teaching more and more students every year. Oakland has closed five elementary schools during the last five years in spite of residents’ protests. The results are no surprise. Elementary school teachers who in previous decades would be dealing with 20 students might be teaching 25 or 27 kids. High school classes can reach nearly 50 students in a class room. It’s like production in a factory, but the raw materials and the products are the lives of the kids themselves.

The quality of education can only suffer as more and more students are packed together in classrooms. The reason for this is clear, there are no jobs for young people once they finish school. In Oakland, the unemployment rate is three times as high as the surrounding cities, almost 30 percent. When a young person graduates high school they are looking at fighting on the same job market as everyone else, and the prospects are not there, no matter how hard you look.

The consequences of the lack of opportunities are dramatic. In Oakland, the drop out rate for students in the public schools is 37 percent. And in some schools such as Castlemont, nearly half of all students drop out. Some people blame the kids, but what are they responding to? Why keep going to school if the conditions keep getting worse and you see no opportunities around you?

Along with unemployment and poverty in this society comes crime. In East Oakland, the murder rate is seven times the national average. And of course like everything in this society the absolute worst is felt by minorities and especially black youth. The number one cause of death in America for young black men from the age of 15-34 is murder. Black youth in Oakland are as likely to be shot to death as to graduate high-school on a track to go to college. And of course, wrapped up in that statistic is the number of young people who are murdered by police. In the Bay Area, some of us have heard the names of Oscar Grant, Alan Blueford, and Pedie Perez, but there are hundreds of names to add to that list.

It’s true that some young people find a way through all of the obstacles and succeed in school. They find a way to go to college and further their education. But what is the prospect for these young people? Today in the U.S. more than two thirds of students who graduate with a bachelor’s degree have $28,400 in debt. The total debt of college graduates in the U.S. today is over one trillion dollars! Perhaps with a good job, young people could pay back that money, but today half of college graduates are working jobs that don’t even require a college education. In other words, they may as well have skipped college and the debt and headed straight to the job market.

What do you call a society which treats its young people this way? It is a failure no matter which way you look at it. There is no reason that the children today who are heading to school, getting on the school buses, or public transit, or whose parents are dropping them off, shouldn’t be looking toward a bright future. They aren’t the ones lacking the talent, the prospects, and the capacities. It is this failing society which degrades their education, and denies them a decent future.

Why should everything be determined by the needs of an economy run for the rich? The majority of society who do the work should have the right to decide our own priorities. Our young people deserve a society in which education and a meaningful future are rights they can count on. That is a future worth working towards.