By JENNI KLOSE
During my campaign for the Santa Rosa school board, I was surprised at how many people said that they don’t follow local education and don’t vote in school board races because they don’t have school-age children.
But whether you have kids in school or manage to live day to day without ever talking to someone under 20, the success or failure of our public schools affects each of us. The success or failure of our public schools affects the economic health of and quality of life in our community and each of our pocket books.
In Sonoma County, about a quarter of our students do not graduate high school. Life is harder for high school dropouts.
High school dropouts:
Are at least three times more likely to go to prison than graduates. Nearly 80 percent of people in prison are dropouts.
Are four times more likely to be unemployed.
Are twice as likely to receive some sort of public assistance.
Are twice as likely to abuse drugs and alcohol.
Investment in education pays. As educational achievement improves:
Individual wages and average household income increase.
Local economies grow and property values increase.
Productivity at work increases.
Rates of obesity, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and kidney disease decrease.
Rates of unhealthy behaviors such as smoking and alcohol and drug abuse decrease while rates of healthy habits such as exercise increase.
Voter turnout and participation in community arts, music, drama and cultural events increase.
According to a recent FBI study, an increase in a community’s average educational level by just one year — two years of junior college instead of one, for example — correlates with significant reductions in crime. Specifically, one more year of education correlates with 27 percent fewer murders, 30 percent fewer assaults, 20 percent fewer car thefts and 13 percent fewer arsons.
Karl Dean, the mayor of Nashville, Tenn., recently spoke at the Sonoma County Cradle to Career kick-off event about Nashville’s reinvestment in education. Dean, elected in 2007, immediately made public education his No. 1 priority. He significantly increased education spending and encouraged community involvement in schools. The payoff? Just a few years later, Nashville ranks as one of the top cities for economic growth, job growth, business relocation and as one of the most livable cities in the country.
A critical step to improving public education is to increase community engagement in our schools. How can you be more engaged in our schools?
First, pay attention. Read about our schools in the newspaper and ask your friends and neighbors what they think about their kids’ schools.
Second, get involved. Find out where your skills and experience could be put to good use, whether it’s a couple hours a week or an hour a year, your time will be appreciated. Or attend a school event; whether it’s a sporting event, an art show or a musical. The price is right, and I am willing to bet that you will be impressed.
Third, donate. California public schools are severely underfunded. California is consistently in the bottom five states in the country in per-pupil spending. Whether you sponsor a student in a walk-a-thon, donate a few bucks to a teacher for supplies or make a larger gift to your neighborhood school or district, your donation will be put to good use.
Finally, vote with education in mind and make sure your elected officials know you do. Each of the 40 school districts in our county has public board meetings. Attend a meeting and maybe even make a comment. Let the board members know that you are paying attention and are holding them accountable.
Jenni Klose, a Santa Rosa attorney, was elected in November to the Santa Rosa school board.