Chase. Elizabeth. David. Sequioa. NiTasha. Vincent. Stephanie. Timothy. Zachary. These names may not register on the lips of most people, but to the staff at the Children's Defense Fund-California (CDF-CA) they represent the reason why we are fighting to level the playing field for California's children and help children like them beat tremendous odds and a deck that is stacked against them. California has the 8th largest economy in the world, yet 1 in 4 children live in poverty and 550,000 children lack health coverage. Black and Latino youth comprise 75 percent of all juvenile felony arrests and 71 percent of 11th graders -- including 86 percent of Black 11th graders and 82 percent of Latino 11th graders -- are failing to meet math standards.
These statistics should serve as an immediate wake up call to every Californian, especially our policymakers. There is not a level playing field for children in California, and all children's lives are not valued or equally protected. It is an understatement to simply say that we need to do more to support our children. The fact is the adversity facing our children is shocking to the conscience -- but we have the power to improve the quality of life for our children not incrementally but with urgency and systemic change.
Last year, the Children's Defense Fund-California made great strides in its mission to change the odds for children, especially poor children, children of color, and children with special needs. The work resulted in key victories in the state budget and legislation that advanced the welfare of children, including the creation of California's first-ever state Earned Income Tax Credit to support poor working families and the expansion of Medi-Cal health coverage to all children regardless of immigration status. We pushed for greater transparency and meaningful community engagement in the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) to support success for high needs students. And we fought to protect and rehabilitate youth in the juvenile justice system and end the solitary confinement of youth in state and county facilities in California.
But we must do more. The playing field for children is still uneven and littered with the rocky path of disinvestment in the social safety net and under-investment in policies and programs that work. This week, we will join key state legislators in Sacramento to release our 2016 policy agenda which provides a roadmap of substantive policy changes to end child poverty, ensure educational equity, provide access to health care, and transform justice systems for youth. Concentrating on these pillars is essential to addressing the needs of the whole child. We must remember that children do not come in pieces and any effective plan of action to improve outcomes for children must be comprehensive.
Our policy agenda outlines key steps to level the playing field for California's children:
End Child Poverty
California can end child poverty by boosting family income and wages and strengthening the safety net to meet children's basic needs. We must ensure that parents and other caregivers have jobs that pay enough to support their families -- by raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and expanding the new state Earned Income Tax Credit. And we must build a strong safety net to meet children's basic needs when families fall on hard times. Repealing the CalWORKs Maximum Family Grant (MFG) rule, investing in affordable housing, and funding transportation for poor students will help protect children from hunger and homelessness.
Provide Every Child Access to Health Care
We must ensure every child the healthy start they need to survive and thrive by guaranteeing access to quality health care for all children. California took a leap forward toward health for all children last year when the state expanded Medi-Cal to children regardless of immigration status. Ensuring timely and effective implementation of the expansion, and expanding access to affordable coverage to their parents and family members, is critical. And just as physical well-being is important so is the mental health of children. The chronic adversity and trauma endured by children can lead to devastating health impacts and perpetuate cycles of violence and poverty. We must increase access to trauma-informed mental health services for children.
Ensure Educational Equity
A high-quality public education is the core element to leveling the playing field for our children and setting them up for success. Improving children's educational and life outcomes starts with strengthening early education. We must guarantee that all poor and vulnerable children have access to a high quality continuum of early childhood programs from birth through age 5. Then, California must fulfill the promise of LCFF by ensuring adequate and equitable K-12 funding to serve poor students, students with special needs, English Learners, foster youth, and students of color. Educational equity also requires fostering positive alternatives to exclusionary discipline policies and fully engaging parents and students in key education decisions that affect them.
Transforming Youth Justice Systems
Although California has dramatically reduced the number of youth in the juvenile justice system, we still must continue to shift resources away from incarceration and invest in the development and healing of youth in their homes and communities. We must reduce the over-criminalization and incarceration of children, particularly our poor children of color, and ensure fair, proportionate and developmentally appropriate treatment for justice-involved youth -- including ending the solitary confinement of youth.
Legislative Priorities to Level the Playing Field for California Children'sThis year, CDF-CA is sponsoring four state bills that directly correlate with our identified policy priorities.
- Assembly Bill 1572 by Assemblymember Nora Campos guarantees low-income children have access to free transportation to school
- Senate Bill 882 by Senator Robert Hertzberg ends the criminalization of youth for transit fare evasion
- Senate Bill 1143 by Senator Mark Leno strictly limits the use of solitary confinement for youth in local and state facilities
- Assembly Bill 1567 by Assembly member Nora Campos waives fees and prioritizes access to state-funded after-school programs for homeless and very poor children
I invite you to join CDF-CA in the movement to level the playing field for California children by reading our 2016 Policy Agenda and taking action to support these critical bills. Let's raise a ruckus for children beginning now! California's 9 million children deserve to have the opportunity to lead full and productive lives and realize a goal of becoming a teacher, engineer, civic leader, or doctor.
Our children's future hangs in the balance. The time is now to see them thrive. Let's get to work.