Billions for War, Cuts for Schools

Sikivu Hutchinson is an adjunct instructor at CalArts and author of "Imagining Transit: Race, Gender, and Transportation Politics in L.A."

Imagine you are a student in the richest nation in the world and are told that state government is subsidizing the incarceration of generations of poor, young blacks and Latinos. Imagine, more specifically, that you are a student in one of California's thousands of under- resourced schools facing another stultifying round of high-stakes testing in April. In order to graduate, you must pass the California high school exit exam. If you fail, you are liable to become a statistic -- one of the thousands of black and Latino students who drop out of school each year out of frustration over a curriculum that does not give them the tools to become culturally literate citizens.

Imagine further that you are faced with these prospects against the global backdrop of a preemptive war that threatens to drain funding for education and social welfare. That is the obscene crisis that many of California's youth face. Black and Latino students have some of the highest dropout rates in the nation and some of the least opportunities for access to college. For many of these students, dropping out of school doesn't merely augur consignment to low-paying jobs, but becoming a number in the ever-burgeoning prison industrial complex.

According to a report released by the California Assembly, poor black and Latino students in so-called inner-city schools are less likely to be taught by highly qualified teachers than white and Asian students. Yet students of color are more likely to bear the brunt of punitive high-stakes testing that exacerbates the divide between rich and poor on the specious pretext of enforcing accountability.

The considerable systemic barriers that prevent many students from performing to their highest potential provide more grist for the prison mill. Young African American men have a greater chance of being incarcerated than of going on to college, according to the Children's Defense Fund. Black and Latino juvenile offenders are six times more likely to be arrested, detained and prosecuted than are white juveniles who commit similar offenses.

In a state where the salaries of prison guards dwarf those of classroom teachers, Gov. Gray Davis' $2.3-billion cut in education funding is a nightmare for communities of color. These cuts will further intensify violent conditions in neighborhoods where after-school programs, health, welfare and safety resources are either in short supply or nonexistent.

Much of the Los Angeles Unified School District's projected $400-million shortfall will affect the very programs that give poor students the kind of support that middle-class students take for granted. For example, counseling and intervention programs that support troubled students and address some of the pressing needs of the district's sizable population of students from foster care would be decimated.

Moreover, if the Defense Department's estimated $200-billion price tag for the war is accurate, cuts at the state level will be only a prelude to trickle-down federal reductions. In its 2004 budget, the Bush administration has proposed weakening Head Start, cutting after-school programs and reducing teacher-training funds mandated under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Amid the reality of war, the disenfranchisement of youth of color exposes the "third world" that lurks within the First World. Faced with an educational climate where the regime of separate and unequal has survived the death of Jim Crow, it is minority youth who are on the front lines.

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