Joe Mathews: It’s time for a student strike

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Students hold signs and watch speakers at a noontime student walkout at the University of California, Berkeley on January 20, 2017. Photo credit: Pete Forsyth/CC 2.0, via Wikimedia

By refusing to go to school, students could make a loud statement about California’s spending priorities.

The phrase “distance learning” has entered the lexicon this year as the coronavirus pandemic forces schools to teach students through the web. In most place it isn’t working very well, according to Zocalo commentator Joe Mathews. And he has three grade-school boys at home, so he should know.  Now, Governor Gavin Newsom is recommending huge cuts to public education to help balance the budget. Mathews says kids are being treated shabbily, and it’s time they stand up and flex their not-inconsiderable political muscle.

Read Joe Mathew's Connecting California column below: 

Dear California Kids,

Don’t let us adults destroy your futures!

This moment gives you unprecedented power to fix what’s wrong with how California treats kids. I am begging you to use it.

Before COVID-19, California was shortchanging its 9.1 million children in education and health. Now in crisis, the state’s adults are conspiring to make things even worse—and without consulting you. The governor’s new budget proposal cuts $15.1 billion from schools and guts other programs you depend on.

But you can stop this—because education can’t restart without your consent. This applies to distance learning, which can’t work if you refuse to sign on to the Internet, as well as to physical school reopenings, which can’t happen unless you agree to return on campus.

This gives you financial leverage, because California school funding is based on daily attendance. If you stay home, or refuse to open educational apps, school districts won’t have the money operate, because you are absent.

If schools can’t fully open, neither can the California economy. Checkmate, grownups.

I know you want to go back to school, and that skipping class feels irresponsible. But one irony of these times, when you can’t protest together in person, is that truancy might be your most responsible course.  And right now is the moment to organize and pressure your elders. A student-led movement could dictate the terms of the school return and budget— if it could credibly threaten a statewide student strike in the fall.

What should your demands be? You should figure those out for yourselves. But the picture of how California treats children is not pretty. 

The 2020 California Children’s Report Card, from the non-partisan Children Now, offers a comprehensive review of your horror show. California ranks so low in education funding that fewer than half of you meet state standards in English Language Arts and Mathematics. California leaders provide you health insurance, but not much actual health care; your state ranks low in preventive screenings, dental care, nutrition assistance, and mental health services.

California is also awful at child care and special education. Elected officials have been promising universal preschool for 20 years without delivering it. Sixty percent of your school districts don’t have a full-time nurse. The student-to-counselor ratio is 600 to 1.

You can’t do much about this because adults deny you democratic representation. You constitute 23 percent of California residents but can’t vote or hold elected office. As a result, you suffer under funding formulas designed without your assent, long before you were born. 

In this extraordinary moment, there are many demands you could make. You could refuse to return to campus or sign onto Google Classroom until all the proposed cuts to schools and children’s programs are reversed. Going forward, you could require the state to meet the national average for children’s funding and services. You also could demand that the state actually fund your educational needs (which would require 25 percent more spending) instead of relying on antiquated education-funding formulas based on tax revenues.

For leadership of your movement, look to foster kids, who have successfully organized to reform their system. led reforms of their system.

Some adults will dismiss your threatened strike as immature. Ignore them. Adults are already making that very same threat. The L.A., San Diego, Long Beach, San Francisco, Oakland, and Sacramento school districts just threatened to stay closed this fall unless they get more state funds.

One other thing: If you have to strike, you don’t have to stop getting an education. Schools around the country are offering excellent distance-learning curricula for free online. Your education no longer depends on the whim of your local schools.  You have options now.

With greater choice comes more power. Use it. The only people who can save California’s kids are California’s kids.

Joe Mathews

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square



Joe Mathews