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 She is learning videography on an outdated camera that takes cassette tapes – and that’s at a so-called specialized “media academy.”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: 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.