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A bet on schools that could go bad

A Latino graduate went deeply into debt on student loans in hopes of improving local education. Then the recession changed the odds.

July 07, 2009|HECTOR TOBAR

Antonio Plascencia Jr. went into debt for California. Big time. He placed a five-figure bet on your kids and their schools. And it's a gamble he could lose.

Plascencia got into this predicament because he's a wonky 25-year-old from the barrios of East Los Angeles and El Monte. He gets angry when he thinks about those high school friends who couldn't write a coherent paragraph and the teachers who accepted this sad truth without complaint.

When he graduated from El Monte High, he was a good student with an unspectacular 3.4 grade-point average. But he worked hard at Loyola Marymount University and latched onto a dream.

He would infiltrate Southern California's ailing public school system and change it from the inside, announcing to everyone that underachievement in barrio communities would no longer be tolerated.

To do this, he needed training. So he interned, networked and fought his way into one of the best boot camps for aspiring public servants in the United States -- the University of Chicago's Harris School of Public Policy Studies.

His plan was to come back home to California this summer and, with his newly minted master's degree, get a job and start to "make a little trouble" in the education bureaucracy.

Everything was going smoothly -- until the budget crisis hit.

Now he's got $90,000 in student loans to pay off and no prospects for any employment here that will put him on track to get out of that hole.

"Because of the recession, it's really difficult in California for someone like myself," he told me by phone from Chicago.

It's a new epoch in the history of the Golden State -- an age of layoffs and "hiring freezes" and "payroll reductions." So Plascencia's best hope, he says, is far away from home, in Washington, D.C., where he's interviewed with the federal government.

"I thought I saw a need for someone in California like me," he said. "Someone's who's studied policy and comes from the grass-roots."

Yes, Antonio, we need you. The problem is with us here in California. We're so broke we're in danger of losing many of our brightest and most idealistic sons and daughters to other places.

We've reached this sorry state because we can't persuade our leaders in Sacramento that we really want better schools, and that all of us taxpayers, together, are willing to make the sacrifices to keep them running.

Of course, there are a lot of people inside those public institutions already making private sacrifices. There are teachers who tap into their own savings to pay for school materials, professionals with advanced degrees who've turned down more lucrative careers to work in high schools.

They do this because they believe, like Plascencia, in public service -- and because a sum like $90,000 doesn't seem too steep for a whole lifetime of making your native state a better place to live.

"When I look at the payments, they're big enough to be for the mortgage on a house," Plascencia told me of his student loan. "My sister owns a house in Texas, and I could buy a property there with that much money."

Like many a homeowner hoping to increase market value, Plascencia put in his fair share of "sweat equity." He worked for free helping at-risk youths at Lennox Middle School near LAX and volunteered with a nongovernmental organization working with the poor in Peru.

Last summer, the Education Pioneers Fellows Program in Los Angeles got him an internship mentoring college-bound immigrant students for Green Dot, the charter school operator.

Brandon Malmberg of Education Pioneers says he has no doubt Antonio possesses the skills to make a difference. "He is passionate about creating systemic and lasting change," Malmberg said.

Unfortunately, Malmberg added, competition for good education jobs has become "extremely stiff."

There's something at once poignant and frustrating about Plascencia's situation. He's a native Californian who's staked his future on improving an education system even as the politicians who oversee that system are allowing it to collapse.

He graduated last month and started sending off resumes.

Over the phone he talked my ear off about the Chicago and New York school systems and the dysfunction he's observed in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where "everything is so heavily politicized."

He patiently explained complicated theories of "econometrics" that he said are essential to re-imagining our education system. And he told me how he's finishing up one last internship this summer with the Chicago public schools' Office of Accountability.

You'd figure that the son of Mexican immigrants who can fluently speak both the language of L.A.'s working poor -- Spanish -- and of theories of government reform would be a shoo-in for a job just about anywhere in California.

But the California Department of Education told him to try again later. So did several nonprofits whose budgets have been cut. When he does find an opening, he's competing with older, laid-off professionals with tons more experience.

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