Dollars for tamales: poor schools can’t get by on home cooking

For weeks, I haven’t been able to open my refrigerator without getting attacked by a bag of tamales. Our fridge is stuffed with bags of them. Two of the bags are ours. The rest were purchased by family and friends all over the Bay Area. The proceeds go to our daughter’s Spanish immersion elementary school in Oakland Unified.

Like schools all over California, her school faces a massive deficit – in this case over $200,000. After hearing the news, a group of mothers worked for days to prepare over a thousand tamales for sale. In the end, their efforts raised $1,000 – a drop in the bucket compared to the size of the deficit.

A few miles to the south, an affluent district in the middle of Silicon Valley also faced a deficit. There, in a few short weeks, parents raised over $2,000,000. According to the news reports, the dollars they raised saved over 100 teaching jobs and maintained 20:1 class sizes.

Here, in Oakland, the $1,000 and other donations raised over the past months might help keep the copier running for part of another year. What won’t be saved is far more critical – after-school programs and other supports for students who have fallen behind academically. Nor will the money prevent any additional cuts that will happen if the governor proposes deeper budget reductions.

We’re not as worried as some parents about the impact of these cuts on our daughter. We’re both educators and our kids have been in dual immersion since preschool. The cuts, like all the cuts in Oakland Unified, will hurt those students most in need of basic supports. Our school is mostly African American and Latino, and the vast majority of its students are low income. Without these supports, they are less likely to catch up with their more advantaged peers – the kind whose parents can raise $2,000,000 in a couple of weeks.

Two years ago, when I ran student services for San Diego Unified, I often saw the impact of this cruel equation close up. One year, after the governor released his May budget, I walked into a room of over fifty caseworkers serving pregnant and parenting teens throughout San Diego County to tell them that three quarters of them would likely lose their jobs. This wasn’t a cut to the education budget, but it might as well have been. It was the job of these caseworkers to keep young pregnant women and mothers in school; to help them manage the dual responsibilities of being both a student and a mother. The program was highly successful in keeping them on track to graduate from high school, training them on how to build their children’s social and emotional skills, and preventing future pregnancies.

When I left the room, I nearly threw up. What kind of state, I wondered, cuts these types of services? Who would deny that there is a legitimate government interest in underwriting the cost of this support  – if not for humanitarian reasons then at least from a simple financial calculus? Healthy mothers who graduate from high school are less likely to need state assistance in the future. Children who received prenatal care and early socio-emotional supports are less likely to need government services in the future. These are the types of savings a state can bank on to prevent future budget crises.

But long-term thinking isn’t incentivized among the political class in Sacramento. In good times, they handed out tax cuts to one side of the political aisle, and unsustainable pensions and benefits to the other. In bad times, our leaders like to talk about making cuts with scalpels instead of axes. But when they cut, it doesn’t matter what instrument they use – their cuts strike the programs least likely to cause them political damage. I haven’t seen the voting percentages, but I imagine that pregnant teenagers and children in high-poverty schools are pretty low on the political totem pole. School districts in the poorest parts of our state – the very districts least able to afford it – are hammered with the same cuts as those in wealthier areas. Longtime programs designed to provide funding to support low-income students are made “flexible” so the funding can be used to shore up salaries, benefits, and pensions instead of providing summer school and additional education supports. Then, as the cuts are shredding the safety net, those who have the ability to pay more in taxes, whether they are corporations or individuals, are protected from paying more by their lobbyists and political friends.

Caught in the middle are the children in our poorest communities – the very children who happen to be the majority of our state’s student population. Their parents work just as hard. They care just as much. They just don’t have enough tamales to buy friends in high places.

Arun Ramanathan is executive director of The Education Trust—West, a statewide education advocacy organization. He has served as a district administrator, research director, teacher, paraprofessional, and VISTA volunteer in California, New England, and Appalachia. He has a doctorate in educational administration and policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His wife is a teacher and reading specialist and they have a child in preschool and another in a Spanish immersion elementary school in Oakland Unified.

Author: Arun Ramanathan

Arun Ramanathan is executive director of The Education Trust—West, a statewide education advocacy organization. He has served as a district administrator, research director, teacher, paraprofessional and VISTA volunteer in California, New England and Appalachia. He has a doctorate in educational administration and policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His wife is a teacher and reading specialist and they have a child in preschool and another in a Spanish immersion elementary school in Oakland Unified.

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