Friday, January 04, 2008


By Neil Gonzales | San Jose Mercury News

Bay Area News Group

Thursday, January 3, 2008 - An Oakland-based youth advocacy group gave low marks to the state of children's health and education in California today and urged leaders to boost funding and take other measures to dramatically improve those areas.

In its 2008 California Report Card released today, Children Now concluded that the well-being of youth statewide is generally poor and needs top priority even in the face of the current budget crisis.

"Far too many kids are falling behind and don't have access to the support necessary to have a chance to succeed," said Ted Lempert, the organization's president.

However, earlier reports by Children Now and others indicated that San Mateo County children are doing better than their peers statewide.

"We seem to be faring better on many of the indicators," said Peter Burchyns, spokesman for the county Office of Education. "But we're not saying we're at the place we want to be."

In a previous report, Children Now ranked San Mateo second out of 58 counties in the percentage of children with health insurance and second in the percentage of children ages 3 and 4 enrolled in preschool.

The county also came in sixth in elementary students meeting state targets in English-language arts and sixth in those reaching goals in math.

Burchyns partly attributed the county's better standings to its relative wealth.

"One particular factor is that we tend to be a relatively high-economy county," he said. "If people are better off financially, they can purchase better health care, and educational achievement is linked to family economy and socioeconomic factors."

But the county has also championed state-funded universal preschool. The county office offers various preschool programs, including the Preschool For All initiative.

That program offers free preschool education to families, regardless of income, within targeted areas of the Redwood City and Ravenswood school districts.

Although California has made some strides to boost children's health and raise student achievement, the latest report by Children Now showed that the state is a long way from where it should be.

The Report Card assigned letter grades to certain health and educational factors affecting California's children.

For example, health insurance notched a C, kindergarten-to-12th-grade education earned a C-, and obesity received a D+, according to the report.

The report found that fewer than half of the state's families can afford the basics of housing, child care, food, health insurance and transportation.

It also pointed out that just 65 percent of students graduate from high school on time, and one in three children is overweight or obese.

"There has been a lot more focus" on tackling childhood obesity, Lempert said. "But the crisis is so severe."

He said a concerted effort is needed to reduce junk food, improve children's access to exercise and further raise awareness "to make a significant dent" on obesity.

The report gave better marks in infant health (B-), adolescent health (B-) and after-school services (B+).

Initiatives targeting drunken driving and suicide, for instance, have helped improve the mortality rate of those ages 15 to 19, the report said.

Lempert added that California has funneled additional funding to after-school programs and has become a national leader in this area.

But the report urged the state "to invest more resources in the K-12 education system to ensure sufficient and stable funding."

That would help close achievement gaps among different groups of students, particularly between African-American or Latino children and their Asian or Caucasian peers, the report said.

But the state's budget deficit, currently estimated at between $10 billion and $14 billion, could damper long-term improvements.

"No question that the budget shortfall will delay comprehensive changes that are needed," Lempert said. "But 2008 can still be a year for significant progress."

He said a proposed statewide ballot initiative seeks to ensure all California children have access to health insurance.

Children Now also supports a proposed $9 billion bond measure in November to fund construction projects at school districts, community colleges and other institutions, Lempert said.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell has pitched that bond proposal to legislators.

In response to the youth advocacy's findings, O'Connell said in a statement: "I have long advocated for the very things called for in Children Now's report - quality preschool, building an information system that will help our schools better serve students, investing in adequate facilities, and teacher preparation and recruitment. The report correctly points out the urgency of closing the achievement gap, which is my top priority as state superintendent."

To read Children Now's 2008 California Report Card, visit the group's Web site at

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