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Study of children cites obesity, poverty

An advocacy group's annual report card says student test scores are up slightly but gives low marks for the well-being of California families.

January 04, 2007|Charles Proctor | Times Staff Writer

California slightly improved K-12 education and access to after-school programs last year, but barely made the grade in looking out for families and combating childhood obesity, according to a nonpartisan report card released Wednesday.

In its annual "The State of the State's Children," the Oakland-based group Children Now assigned letter grades to health, education and the condition of families in California for 2005-06. After-school programs received a B-plus, and K-12 education climbed from a D-plus to a C-minus last year. But the state scraped by in the categories of obesity and family well-being with two D-pluses.

The report credited California with making gains in standardized test scores and boosting the budgets for education and healthcare by hundreds of millions of dollars. But the largely average or below-average marks highlight the need for more sweeping and comprehensive changes, experts and the report's authors say.

"Yeah, there was some progress last year; the state put in more money and test scores went up a little," said Ted Lempert, president of Children Now. "But if you step back, you say, 'Wow, look how much farther we have to go.' We need to overhaul and take a bigger swipe at the system rather than chip away at it."

The report's authors recommended, among other things, that the state reexamine how it calculates and allocates money to schools and that it provide all children access to preschool and healthcare.

Lempert called universal healthcare "an immediate doable step that could be accomplished this year and move that grade up by '08."

The report took the state to task for failing to slow the growing rate of obesity among children. It acknowledged that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger allocated $500 million in one-time funding for schools to buy sports equipment, and $40 million to hire more physical education instructors.

But it pointed out that about one in three children overall and 37% of low-income children are still overweight or obese.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has removed campus soda machines and slipped more healthful food into cafeterias, but it needs to do more, said Donnalyn Anton, the district's executive officer of educational services.

"We need to get the families to understand that when they allow their children to enter into unhealthy eating," Anton said, "they risk their [children's] lives farther down the road."

The report also hammered the state for the low condition of family well-being. One in five children in California live in a household earning below the federal poverty level, the report said. And when cost of living is taken into account, the fraction of the state's children who live in an economically struggling family climbs to 30%.

Experts credited the report for examining the health of households in which a child is raised.

"It's easy to see little children as innocent and deserving, and sometimes harder to see their parents as deserving," said Jacquelyn McCroskey, a professor in the USC School of Social Work. "And yet it's the overall well-being of their parents that ultimately has the largest impact on the development of these children."

The report comes as Schwarzenegger is preparing to release a plan for overhauling the state healthcare system, and just after the state boosted K-12 funding.

Sabrina Lockhart, Schwarzenegger's deputy press secretary, said the governor has a strong record of funding education, expanding children's access to health clinics and fighting childhood obesity.

But, she added, "We recognize the fact that there is always room for improvement."

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