The right to a great public education

We’ve got to stop cutting public education.

To ease the budget crisis, one state after another is taking an ax to higher education.

This is cruel and shortsighted.

Cruel because it denies students the right to a decent education. Shortsighted because how will this generation of students get prepared to compete globally or even to clean up the financial mess brought about by Wall Street?

I’m a product of the worst and best public education California has to offer.

I grew up in an East Los Angeles housing project in the 1970s and 1980s.

I attended overcrowded public schools located in the inner city. Like many racial minorities from America’s barrios and ghettos, I received an inadequate education.

While I excelled in mathematics, I was never taught to read or write at a competent level throughout my K-12 schooling. To complicate matters, the longest paper assigned to me in high school was two pages long.

I taught myself how to properly read and write while going through college to compensate for my poorly funded K-12 education. But what will happen to those without this same self-drive that I learned from my Mexican immigrant mother?

Fortunately, I also benefited from affirmative action and from numerous educational outreach programs and policies like Occident College’s Upward Bound — a preparatory program for students from disadvantaged communities.

If not for such programs, I wouldn’t have made it to UCLA as an undergraduate. I wouldn’t have earned a master’s degree in urban planning there. And I wouldn’t be pursuing my doctorate at Berkeley.

So I worry about those who grow up in poor neighborhoods without the same educational safety nets that allowed for me, along with my three siblings and my wife Antonia, to attend some of the best universities in this country. I can’t help but be concerned about the plight of my wife’s elementary school students in East Los Angeles today.

Those who fight against affirmative action and against government-sponsored early educational outreach programs conveniently wash their hands of any responsibility toward those who lack the financial resources and access to human capital to go to college.

And fewer and fewer have those resources, with one state after another raising tuition and other fees.

These fee hikes couldn’t come at a worse time.

If we care about equality of opportunity, if we are concerned about our ability to compete in the global economy, it’s time to give everyone, including those from America’s barrios and ghettos, a shot at a great public education.

Alvaro Huerta is a doctoral student at the University of California at Berkeley and a visiting scholar at UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center. He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.