No class

Cutting child-care funds for returning students is too easy

Buried in the hundreds of pages that make up the governor’s proposed budget for 2006 is a little-noted cut of $114 million, a relative pittance in a budget that has grown to $126 billion. In a budget so swollen, containing so many perks and favors for so many special interests, a small cut to the least powerful people is little more than a nod toward fiscal responsibility, a bone thrown by a politician to the most rabid dogs in his political action committees.

This particular provision of the proposed budget would deny funding for child care to any new welfare recipients seeking to return to work or to school.

Over the course of a long career teaching English in community colleges, my most satisfying experiences were provided by returning students—those who had been away from education for five or 10 or even 20 years. That hiatus from study between high school and college tended to make those students more serious about their academic pursuits. In the current educational jargon, they were active learners in an environment where far too many students are passive to the point of catatonia.

Sometimes those students—most of them women—would write papers for me, papers that gave expression to the feelings evoked by the renewal of hopes created when they returned to study. I recently came across one of those papers, written more than 20 years ago by a student whose children are now grown up. Here’s what that long-ago student wrote, with her minor errors left as she wrote them:

“I am a single parent of two children. A boy who is 13 years and a girl who just turned 4. I’m sure I do not need to tell you just how hard it is to get a decent paying job with some sort of bennifits without an education. I am 30 years old now, and I need to start thinking of mine and my children’s future.

“Up until Spring semester, I was a welefare parent, siting at home because I couldn’t afford to work. It costs a minimum of $10 a day for child care. Then there’s travel expences. I know many single parents who aren’t even trying to get work anymore because they can’t afford it, or just isn’t worth it.

“I can’t speak for everyone, but the thought of becoming independent thrills me like nothing else.

“My whole life has changed. I feel as if I am somebody—not just a welefare mother. My son is so very proud of me. After school I can’t wait to share with him all I’ve learned. When he looks and me and says ‘ALL RIGHT, MOM,’ it’s the happiest times I have right now. And it makes all the extra work of studying after being both a mother and a father each day worth it.

“(Please excuse my spelling. It’s one of the reasons I’m here.)”

This paper could just as easily have been written by one or another of my more recent students, or any of thousands of such students currently enrolled in courses throughout the Golden State. These are people trying to breach hurdles they couldn’t get over earlier in their lives. These women have complicated their lives in myriad ways, and those complications have put them in nearly hopeless straits. Changing things for the better requires a determined effort. Divorced, or simply never wed, with a couple of kids and a ne’er-do-well ex-husband or lover who contributes little or nothing to her support or to the support of the children, these women return to education with the most tentative hopes for a new beginning. They have been getting by, just barely, on minimum-wage jobs or public assistance, neither of which keep the wolf from the door. They live a gray existence; every day produces needs that cannot be easily met.

Bad choices or limited opportunity helped these women construct cages for their lives. Escaping those cages is a nearly insurmountable challenge, and, for many, the only available key to that cage is the community-college system.

If you’re a young woman with two kids, a part-time job at a convenience store, and a hundred and one demands on your time, how do you manage to fit three or four college classes into your schedule? And how do you pay for it, since the amount of money you have left over for discretionary spending on your future is, precisely, zero? How do you get off the treadmill that keeps you tired and broke week in and week out? How do you resuscitate hope for your future and for the future of your kids?

It helps if you can get help, like paid child care for those hours you’re in class.

It is precisely that help that Governor Schwarzenegger seeks to eliminate. Cuts like these always come at the expense of the most vulnerable people among us. What makes them vulnerable, of course, is that they have very little political clout. Clout comes from money, and it comes from connections, and money and connection come with education. Education, all too often, comes with money, and so it goes.

Budgets are bloodless documents, but flesh-and-blood people suffer real pain at the receiving end of political ploys and fiscal sleight of hand. In order for Schwarzenegger to look like a marginally responsible fiscal manager, very real people, like the student who wrote that long-ago paper in my freshman English class, will have to pay a very real price.

The small budget allotted to the hopes and dreams of poor women returning to school must be cut so that tax breaks will not be threatened for those whose hopes and dreams have already been realized.

That’s a false economy—and a cruel one.