California should stop short-changing kids. Here’s how to help

By Ted Lempert, Special to CalMatters

From criminal justice reform to environmental stewardship to humane immigration policies, California’s leaders make the state a model of effective governance for the federal government and other states.

But no matter how you look at it, the state ranks near the bottom of states when it comes to our kids. 

Education, starting at birth and through young adulthood, is where California is falling the furthest behind other states. With California setting the standard for the nation in so many other areas, it’s shocking that we are failing to do so for education.

A critical start to setting a national model is to adequately address decades of underfunding education. California leaders need to ensure that the November 2020 ballot includes a single revenue measure that is solely focused on education including quality child care, preschool, K-12, and higher education.

Previous revenue-generating measures, Propositions 30 in 2012 and 55 in 2016, focused on the needs of schools to win voter approval. But the resulting revenue was spread among many state programs across the general fund. 

Two competing proposals highlight the need to increase school funding. And, while the public consistently ranks education as a top priority, placing both measures on the same ballot will likely create confusion among voters.

More importantly, neither provides additional targeted investments for California’s youngest learners or students in the UC or CSU systems.

Increasing our investment in education should be one of the state’s highest priorities to meet the needs of our diverse and growing population. California has among the largest school readiness gaps in the country, due in large part to the state’s lack of investment in early childhood. 

The state is in the bottom half of the country when it comes to equitable access to quality early learning programs, despite indisputable research that critical brain development occurs before the age of five.

Additionally, California’s school funding shortfalls impact professional staffing and development, student-teacher ratios, per pupil spending, and ultimately student performance. 

Our schools have among the fewest educators and caring adults such as counselors and nurses on campuses in the nation, disproportionately impacting those students who require targeted support, such as English learners, youth in foster care and kids growing up in low-income households. 

And California, once heralded for its historic Master Plan for Higher Education, now trails many states in terms of higher education investments and outcomes.

In a state that is leading the nation on so many fronts, why are we allowing our kids to fall behind their peers and imperiling our collective future? The inadequacy of education funding in this state has reached a crisis point. 

The $2.3 billion increase Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislators included in the 2019-20 budget for early education and health care is a laudable start, but the governor was correct in calling it a down payment. We can and must do much more.

Children Now is coordinating a campaign through The Children’s Movement of California, a network of more than 3,500 direct service, parent, civil rights, faith-based, business and community groups, to urge Gov. Newsom and Legislature to place a comprehensive education measure on the 2020 ballot. 

California’s lack of investment in education is not the fault of Gov. Newsom or the current Legislature. But with bold leadership, they have the opportunity and authority to right this wrong, and ensure that we are putting the needs of our kids first.

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Ted Lempert is president of Children Now, [email protected] He wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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