No more excuses: As California rebounds, invest in kids

Ted LempertJanuary 6, 2014Ted LempertEven as California heads into 2014 with lots of good news – a rebounding economy, a stable state budget and a functional state government – state spending on children’s health and education continues to lag far behind the rest of the nation. Not only does this misprioritization contradict public will, it also represents one of the biggest threats to public health and the economy that our state faces in the new year.
While many other states have prioritized education and children’s health – realizing investments in kids more than pay for themselves in terms of increased earnings and revenues, a stronger overall economy and decreased healthcare, corrections and other public costs later on – California has failed in this regard. Two key examples from the “2014 California Children’s Report Card,” which Children Now released today:
K-12 education: California is ranked below the national average (30th) in per capita spending on K-12 education, and we rank 48th when adjusted to account for regional differences in the cost of living. While Proposition 98 will require significant increases in education spending this year, other states are also increasing their investments in education. So, unless California takes bigger steps, we will continue to fall behind.
Children’s health: The state’s current Medicaid spending per child is third lowest in the nation, significantly below the national average. So, while health insurance coverage rates are improving for California’s children, their access to the care they need remains a major problem, even with health care reform. The reimbursement rates offered by Medi-Cal, which will insure approximately half of all California’s children in 2014, are so low there simply aren’t enough doctors willing to serve the kids enrolled.
When you consider California ranks 11th nationally in per capita state and local tax revenues – in other words, well above the national average in revenues – there’s no excuse for the state’s budget and policymaking priorities not to be shifted this year to better support children’s success.
So, here are eight things that the governor and Legislature can do in 2014 to start turning things around, some that cost more money, and some that reform the way we are spending current dollars:
Fully support implementing the new Common Core academic standards and aligned assessments. Doing so will help ensure that California’s schools are teaching students the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in the 21st century global economy. There is an immediate need for additional state investments in teacher preparation, instructional materials and school technology infrastructure, building upon the $1.25 billion allocated last year.
Ensure the spirit of the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) is met by establishing a clear accountability plan and fiscal rules to successfully oversee school districts’ implementations of LCFF. It is critical that high-needs students – including low-income students, English learners and foster youth – actually benefit from the new law as intended. Upcoming policy decisions by the State Board of Education are crucial to achieving the level of clarity needed.
Restore the 110,000 slots for vulnerable young children in preschools and child care that were eliminated by budget cuts in recent years, and expand transitional kindergarten to include a full year’s cohort of students. The achievement gap, reading by third grade, workforce development, the cycle of poverty, economic growth and other issues would be significantly improved by increasing investments in early learning and development.
Ensure all young children receive age-appropriate developmental and behavioral screenings and that a system exists to assist families and pediatricians in coordinating any follow-up referrals, treatments or other early interventions. Enforcing a mandate on insurance companies and providing additional funding will ensure that young children with developmental delays can get the early intervention services they need.
Expand the California Home Visiting Program, currently under way in 21 counties. This would allow more vulnerable young children, pregnant mothers and new parents to receive regular visits by a trained professional who provides health services, child development information and learning activities and serves as a general resource for family needs.
Increase the number of children with access to school-based health services. This common-sense reform would dramatically improve children’s access to care and deliver services more efficiently and effectively. Critical behavioral and preventative health screenings, including dental, vision and mental health, should occur where children already are – in schools and early care and education facilities.
Enact Assembly Bill 420 to eliminate the subjective category of “willful defiance” as grounds for suspension and expulsion and introduce more effective discipline practices in schools. Current suspension and expulsion policies are reducing attendance, are unfairly impacting African American and Latino students and aren’t making our schools safer, better places to learn.
Establish contact with all former foster youth, ages 26 and younger, to let them know that they are now eligible for Medi-Cal coverage through age 26, and how they can enroll. In 2013, the state extended public health coverage benefits for former foster youth up to age 26. But, to date, limited outreach efforts about the change have been conducted, resulting in inadequate levels of awareness among these youth.
Let’s make 2014 the year of California’s kids.
Ted Lempert is the president of Children Now, the leading nonpartisan, multi-issue research, policy development and advocacy organization dedicated to promoting children’s health and education in California, and the leader of The Children’s Movement of California.
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