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Kids' Needs Must Be More Than Campaign Promises

January 14, 2002|LOIS SALISBURY and THEODORE R. MITCHELL | Lois Salisbury is president of Children Now. Theodore R. Mitchell is president of Occidental College.

The political landscape taking shape for this year's gubernatorial election should be full of promise for California's nearly 10 million children.

Both Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, the front-runner among the Republican candidates, have named education and children as their priority. Indeed, in his State of the State speech Tuesday, Davis vowed that education would be protected "above all else" in the state budget. Yet many of California's working families struggle with the economic downturn in an already very expensive state to raise children.

The gubernatorial candidates face hard questions when it comes to translating their statements into action. How do they fulfill their pledges in a time of growing budget deficits? On what criteria do Davis and Riordan base their proposals about what gets cut or delayed?

In the recent report "California Report Card 2001: Factors for School Success," the Oakland-based research and action group Children Now identified key state policies that affect a child's ability to succeed in school. Health coverage, for example, helps kids arrive at school able to learn, unimpaired by hearing problems, untreated asthma or the consequences of low birth weight. A good preschool experience improves a child's readiness for kindergarten and diminishes the likelihood of having to repeat a grade or being placed in special education. Credentialed teachers and small classes particularly help disadvantaged children.

Taken together, the report concludes that the state budget must:

* Increase access to high-quality preschool and child care.

* Improve and streamline access to health coverage, while at the same time maximizing federal funds to match state expenditures.

* Target school improvement money on the low-performing schools where disadvantaged children are concentrated.

* Expand the supply of good after-school programs.

* Maximize access to federally subsidized food programs for California's low-income families, two-thirds of which are working but cannot pay for all their needs. This includes programs that help nourish infants and toddlers during the critical early years.

Expensive? Not necessarily. There are 2-to-1 federal matching dollars available for the health coverage that Davis wants to delay until 2003. The food programs come mostly from federal money, waiting to be tapped. While preschool expansion will cost the state, California only enrolls 28% of its eligible children in the federally funded Head Start.

Yes, in the context of state budget deficits, hard choices will have to be made. But maximizing school success is about the future work force and economic strength of California. And, in poll after poll, Californians say that education is their top priority for this state.

A special legislative session is convening to address the growing budget deficit. With a March gubernatorial primary looming, we need to know how Riordan would apply his "children first" agenda to budget decisions. So far, the debate assumes that the hard decisions are about what to cut. But there are growing calls in the Legislature not to rule out increasing taxes, especially given the average $16,000 windfall that, according to Citizens for Tax Justice, wealthy taxpayers will receive in 2002 from last year's federal tax cut.

Ten years ago, when Republican Gov. Pete Wilson faced a similar budget crunch, he opted for a temporary 1% to 2% increase in the upper bracket of state income taxes. Which of today's candidates can provide us with comparable leadership?

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