It’s far too soon to tell if the state’s new education law will improve outcomes for the neediest students, but more investment in the public school system, including quality preschool, teacher training and student health care, is necessary to offset the burden of poverty on California’s children, according to a report released Tuesday.
“Despite some positive recent efforts, children in California are doing very poorly overall,” said the 2014 “California Children’s Report Card” released by Oakland-based Children Now, a nonprofit policy and advocacy organization.
The report card, an evaluation that Children Now has released annually for two decades, doled out grades for how the state is doing in 27 education, health and child welfare areas, including a B+ for after-school and summer learning programs, a B- for the new education finance law and a D for teacher training and evaluation. Noting that California public education is “chronically underfunded,” the report gave the state’s K-12 investment a D grade.
Growing up in an impoverished family, which research has closely linked to poor academic performance and poor health, presents a litany of barriers to achievement, the report said. For starters, poor families can’t afford to send their children to quality preschools. And students who attend K-12 schools in poor neighborhoods are less likely, in general, to be taught by “effective” teachers, the report said.
Nearly half of California’s children are growing up in a poor or low-income household, where a family of four earns less than $45,622 a year, the report said.
“It’s important to remember that California has more children than any other state – and nearly half of them are low-income,” said Jessica Mindnich, director of research at Children Now. “In order for all of our children to have an equal opportunity to succeed and to contribute financially to the state as they become adults, they need opportunities to have good health and enriching educational experiences.”
Research has shown, the report said, that state investments in quality programs for children would more than pay for themselves in increased earnings and revenues and decreased costs for health care and prisons. “The earlier we make the investments, the higher the return,” Mindnich said. “And the earlier we provide children with the services they need, the less intensive the services they require.”
The largely sobering report card comes as the state could find itself on July 1 with a potential multibillion-dollar surplus and potentially billions more to spend on K-12 and community college education, noted the new chairman of the state Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Education Finance, Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, D-Torrance. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office has projected increases in state revenues, which in turn would raise education funding under Proposition 98, which requires that a minimum percentage of the state budget be spent on K-12 schools and community colleges.
Reacting to the Children Now report card, Muratsuchi said, “We obviously have a lot of work to do, but I think the Legislature is facing a historic opportunity to make some smart choices on how to best educate our kids.”
He noted that the California State Assembly Democratic Caucus has listed expanding access to transitional kindergarten to all 4-year-olds among its top priorities for fiscal year 2014-15. That priority is in sync with the report card, which praised the fall 2012 rollout of the state’s transitional kindergarten program. Transitional kindergarten provides an additional year of schooling for 4-year-olds who will turn 5 after September 1, which is the new kindergarten birthday cutoff date, and before or on December 1, the former cutoff date.
“I have a 4-year-old daughter, so I am very interested in early childhood education,” Muratsuchi said. “And as a former prosecutor, I know that if we don’t make smart investments, I know where our kids can end up – in state prisons and in county jails.”
The Children Now report card relies on a three-part rubric of key data points, comparisons over time and comparisons nationally – an admittedly subjective evaluation process, said Mindnich. In addition, this year’s report card often defines children’s issues differently than previous report cards, making it difficult to compare results across the years. For instance, this year’s category of school-based health services was defined as “integrated services” in 2011-12 and included Head Start’s range of services.
Some advocates chafed a bit at the low grades, the selection of data and what they considered to be a lack of depth in the analysis. “The section on teacher training is very thin,” said Rob Riordan, president of the San Diego-based High Tech High Graduate School of Education. “They talk about the importance of quality training, but they don’t say what it is.”
The state’s actions concerning discipline and “school climate,” a broad term representing how supported students, teachers and parents feel at school, received a C-, which Greg Austin, director of the Health and Human Development Program at San Francisco-based WestEd, a nonprofit public research agency, felt was “a little harsh.”
“I don’t think it credits the state for having one of the premier data collection systems,” said Austin, referring to the California Healthy Kids Survey from the California Department of Education, which is administered by WestEd. Launched in 1998, the statewide survey measures school climate, including academic supports, discipline and order, social and emotional learning and student traits such as empathy and persistence.
School-based health services received a D+, a grade that Serena Clayton, executive director of the Oakland-based California School-Based Health Alliance (formerly the California School Health Centers Association), called an accurate reflection of the lack of state funding for health centers.
But the poor grade doesn’t reflect what California schools have been able to create despite funding shortages, Clayton said: 226 school-based health centers are in place and available to 228,000 students, fueled in part by $30 million from the federal Affordable Care Act. Demand for health centers is strong, she said. “People are recognizing that kids are coming to school with a whole host of issues that you cannot address, even with the best teachers and the best curriculum,” Clayton said.
And what of the B- for the new school funding law heralded by Gov. Jerry Brown as “revolutionary”? “That law did put California out in front in terms of a focus on equity and funding,” acknowledged Ted Lempert, president of Children Now, who strongly advocated for the new law, known as the Local Control Funding Formula. But, he said, the state is still formulating regulations and districts haven’t yet had a chance to realize the potential benefits
“A great law was passed but the real test is implementation,” Lempert said.
As for the scope and purpose of the report card, he said, “This is intended to be a snapshot and a wake-up call.”
He added, “This report card is aimed for policy makers and leaders and says, ‘Come on. You made some good progress.’ We think most of state leaders get it, but they’re not making the tough decisions to actually move the needle forward.”
Jane Meredith Adams covers student health. Contact her and follow her on Twitter @JaneAdams.