Will California Continue to Lead the Way in Funding for Vulnerable Kids?

02/11/2014 04:38 pm ET | Updated Apr 13, 2014

Despite a steady stream of very pessimistic reports about California's most vulnerable children, there's some good news: reducing child poverty is a much higher priority for voters than reducing taxes.

According to a survey commissioned by GRACE and the California Endowment, sixty-one percent (61%) of California voters say that reducing the number of children living in poverty should be a top legislative priority.

What's more encouraging, regardless of political affiliation a majority (64%) of voters of all stripes would be willing to pay $50 more in taxes to make it happen.

These priorities are mirrored in surveys of poor parents, fifty nine percent of whom say access to early education and affordable childcare are major challenges. Moreover, over fifty percent say education is the single most important family goal, recognizing that education is the pathway to a better life for their children.

For decades Californians have been indifferent at best when it comes to the fate of low-income kids. Half of the state's children grow up in poor or low-income households, where a family of four earns under $45,000, and many more families struggle to put food on the table in a state that accounts for 13 percent of the nation's children.

Many Americans may not know how accurately childhood poverty can predict lifelong outcomes. Cognitive disparities between the poor and their affluent counterparts have been measured in babies as young as 9-months. By age three, affluent kids have heard 30 million more words than their low-income peers, according to Children Now. That very difference can predict a child's ability to read by 4th grade, which in turn predicts high school graduation rates, and achievement into adulthood. According to the Children's Defense Fund, the impact of child poverty costs the U.S. $500 billion dollars each year.

A recent report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation paints a bleak picture of kids in California: 85 percent of low-income children don't read proficiently by 4th grade. When it comes to children learning English, 95 percent can't read by 4th grade. That's 1.8 million kids, or 30 percent of all California schoolchildren.

And California isn't the only state where English learners are practically doomed to fail. According to 2014 KIDS COUNT, English learners across the country, "are one of the few groups for whom reading proficiency rates did not improve over the past 10 years. This is especially troubling given changing demographics and the increasing importance this group of children will play in the future success of the country."

I tend to discount generalizations like: "the future success of the country." In this instance, though, it's an accurate prediction: By 2020, the United States is expected to face a shortage of 1.5 million workers with college degrees, but will have a surplus of 6 million individuals without a high school diploma who are unemployed because they lack necessary educational credentials.

Over 15 years ago California voters passed landmark legislation to create First 5 California, which has invested hundreds of millions of dollars for early childhood initiatives. Now that the state's budget is rosier than it's been in years, California has made additional, permanent investments to support at-risk children. They voted to increase taxes and passed Prop 30, which directs more money to schools serving high numbers of children in poverty, English learners and foster youth. The proposed Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2014 will fund universal pre-kindergarten in all California schools.

Let's not consign 95 percent of our kids to failure. When you pass a baby on the street, think of how much every moment counts during that fleeting time known as childhood. Know that all parents - whether middle class, affluent or the working poor - want the best education for their children, and share the belief that graduating from high school and college are prerequisites for good jobs and prosperity. Let's vote our way out of this crisis.