Letter from California

An archive of the weekly "Letter from Calfornia", written by Jim McCarthy.

Monday, January 31, 2005

Letter from California-January 31, 2005

Apparently, there’s gold in them thar’ delinquents. Who knew that the solution to getting enough money to fund the schools would be found in the bathroom where the bad kids hang out and smoke? About a week ago, a story came out that San Jose Unified School District’s Great Loose Change Hunt came to an end without fully funding the district for all its needs, so it had to initiate Item B on its list: cracking down on truancy.

Let’s first be clear and say that no one favors truancy and we’d all like to see it eliminated. Actually, on second thought, truants certainly favor truancy, so I guess that’s not technically true. Also, neglectful parents of frequently truant kids probably don’t care either way. If their kid is truant long enough, it keeps them out of those pesky parent-teacher conferences, which is a break they’ll often fill with episodes of COPS, either as viewers or special guest stars.

Come to think of it, parents of children other than the truant children might actually be rooting for a truancy problem. If the hoodlums of their child’s school are running shirtless through the streets during school hours, they won’t be there to tease the other kids for their good teeth, clean clothes and chance at a decent life. Assuming you weren’t the ne’er do well hooky player yourself, you can probably remember a playground thug you would have gladly sent on permanent vacation when you were a kid. Now you can look back and know that eventually, your hard work and patience paid off and there’s nothing that bully can do to you anymore. Unless he joined Delta Force.

So I guess the lesson is that unless you want to spend your adult life running from someone who can fashion a torture device from chewing gum, pipe cleaners and a car battery, you might want to leave the truants be. Why then has San Jose decided to go after them so hard? They’re trying to solve a financial problem, but it seems like chasing kids down and dragging them back to their Advanced Theoretical Physics classes would drain money, not save it.

Wrong. Not when the State doles out the educational dough based on the number of students you’ve got and the number of days they attend. In San Jose’s case, it works out to about $40 a day for every student that shows up, so it’s understandable that they’re concerned. I knew a guy in junior high school who showed up right at the beginning of September, got signed up for classes and then vanished again til sometime in June when it was time for us to go to the next grade. How did that guy get promoted? If they had paid out using San Jose’s system back then, the school would never have gotten the Canteen repainted like they did that year.

Of course, divvying up the resources was simpler then. When the year started, they handed you an abacus, two pieces of chalk, papyrus reeds, and a copy of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” album and sent you to homeroom. For us, $40 was the number at the top of the big paper thermometer for the fundraiser we were doing. If all it took to put that kind of money together was for the teachers to say Chris Jackson (name changed due to Delta Force regulations) showed up when he really didn’t, we’d have considered that a win-win: we’ve got the money and he’s free to spend the day casing potential robbery targets while it’s still light. The system works.

For San Jose, though, it’s a different problem. Being in Silicon Valley, San Jose is home to some of the greatest high-tech entrepreneurs in the world, like Steve Jobs, who started Apple Computer in his Silicon Valley garage. Each San Jose school could be housing a genius who with the right education will bring the world a cell phone you can swallow, pie-making robots, or some other crazy doodad you don’t know you need yet. Failing to educate such a child could mean the human race itself suffers.

Failing to educate Chris Jackson, which pretty much happened anyway, would have deprived the world of untold wedgies and swirlies for nerds, whose self-esteem would therefore have remained artificially high. It’s a bit like wolves culling the deer population. You do have a bit of sympathy for the deer, but it’s nature’s way.

So I applaud San Jose for its creative solution to the age-old problem of keeping kids in school who would rather be fencing gold chains to out-of-town pawnbrokers. More power to them. But if they really want results overnight, I have one simple suggestion.

Split the 40 bucks with the truants. Bad kids love pocket change.


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