February 20, 2004

First Person:

California’s War on Youth

By Russell Morse
PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE

When Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor, I didn’t really care. I was like, “Whatever. This is gonna be funny.” Like a lot of Californians, I let the recall election unfold in front of me like a hilarious episode of “Elimidate.” But now, a few months into his term, Schwarzenegger has made plans to systematically dismantle every public program that ever benefited me.

When I was a teenager, I made some poor decisions and ended up in juvenile hall. After I took a brief tour of California institutions, the state was nice enough to send me to a residential drug program. I spent two years there, getting my life together and planning for the future. The program worked for me. When I was 18, I got out and was ready to start my life.

The program helped me get my high school diploma. The next logical step was college. I applied to San Francisco State University and was accepted through the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), a statewide initiative set up to help kids like me get into college and not fall through the cracks. They gave me grant money to help pay my tuition and invited me to attend Summer Bridge, a program which helps acclimate incoming freshman. Once I was in school, I got regular counseling sessions from my EOP counselor and free tutoring. I got to know everybody else in EOP and all the staff, so I felt like I had a community of people that was looking out for me. I honestly don’t think that I would have made it past my first couple semesters if it weren’t for the help I got from EOP.

Cute story, right? Well, here’s the punch line: hidden in the governor’s proposed budget cuts is a plan to stop ALL state funding to alternative sentencing for juveniles and to eliminate the entire EOP in all 23 California State University campuses.

The CSU system is already a mess. In fact, it’s so bad that they’ve developed a clever way to limit enrollment. This past year they moved the deadline for applications back a couple months. Those who missed news of the policy change lost out.

Another way of getting kids to drop out of school is CSU’s remedial class policy. If you test below what they consider college-level math or English, they offer remedial courses to prepare you for college-level curriculum. More than half of incoming freshman in the CSU system need to take these remedial classes, but because classes are so crowded, a lot of people aren’t getting in. This prevents them from moving forward and sometimes even leads to expulsion. Ultimately, though, this is a reflection on California’s high schools, which are not preparing young people for college.

In the first week of classes at S.F. State, there are always at least 20 people sitting on the floor, hoping to get into the class. Every department has been essentially cut in half. It has become nearly impossible to graduate. People have taken to calling State “The Black Hole” because you can never get out.

Until now, kids in EOP had some help to navigate the madness that involves attending a California state university. I feel like I’ll be all right because I’ve been there for a while and I can deal with it. But what about the people coming up behind me? EOP was set up to help young people who have had some obstacles placed in the way of their educational success — poor kids, minorities, kids with learning disabilities and kids coming out of foster care (another train wreck of a state program).

So what do you do if you’re a poor/minority/learning disabled kid in high school right now? Well, you’re probably in a really bad public high school that is not preparing you for a job OR college. And the cuts to the juvenile justice system will also eliminate funding for preventive work, like after-school and gang-prevention programs. That kind of narrows your options. Gwendoline Tucker, San Francisco’s chief probation officer, put it rather plainly when she said the cuts “will absolutely mean higher detention rates at juvenile hall, because there are no alternatives.”

A couple years ago, when Prop. 21 passed (the juvenile justice bill), I thought the “War on Youth” protesters were being a little alarmist. But when all of these cuts and propositions are stacked next to each other, I believe it. I don’t understand it, but now I believe that California and its governor have put the state’s young people on the bottom of their list. What options are left? I guess you could join the armed forces and have your legs blown off in the desert while the search continues for Saddam’s slingshots and potato guns.

Morse (jiver76@ yahoo.com) is an associate editor at YO! Youth Outlook (www.youthoutlook.org) a magazine by and about Bay Area youth, and a PNS project.

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