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SF students are chronically absent in huge numbers—California must help

Source: Benjamin Fanjoy/The Standard

By Ted Lempert

Children cannot learn if they miss school. While this may sound like an obvious statement, it’s one that bears repeating, as newly released data makes all too clear: Fully one-third of San Francisco students were chronically absent last school year, meaning these students missed 10% or more of the total days of instruction. That is a higher proportion of chronically absent students than the California statewide average of 25%, which itself is a high number, compared to the rest of the United States.

The figures are even worse for children of color and for children from low-income families who have faced more challenges in resuming their school-day routines since the pandemic. In San Francisco, chronic absenteeism rates were 64% for Black students, 59% for American Indian/Alaska Native students, and 48% for Latino students.

Despite being a national leader on so many important issues, California ranks just 35th out of 50 states in children’s well-being, according to the same report. How did the wealthiest state in the nation neglect our children so badly that we are in the bottom third of the country for how we support our kids? 

Every year the Annie E. Casey Foundation, one of the country’s leading advocates for children and families, publishes the KIDS COUNT Data Book, compiling data on 16 indicators of child and youth well-being in health, education, economic status and family and community context. 

This year’s report was particularly alarming when showcasing how California’s education system is failing our children, who are not learning the fundamental skills they will need to succeed in adulthood. Sixty-nine percent of fourth-graders have not mastered basic reading skills, while 77% of eighth-graders are not proficient in math. 

California also ranks 43rd in the percentage of GDP spent on TK-12 schools, with disconnected and often temporary education investments leading to no overall plan to ensure increased funding translates to improved student outcomes. 

For decades, the Casey Foundation, along with Children Now and other partners, has sounded the alarm that children are not being equipped to learn and succeed. For example, chronic absenteeism has soared since the pandemic. 

A row of mismatched plastic chairs, some white, black, and dark, is lined up against a wall on a wet, narrow alley. The image appears to be taken through a fence.
Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

To get kids back on track in school, we must make sure they arrive at the classroom ready to learn by ensuring access to meals, a reliable internet connection, a place to study and time with teachers and counselors. To California’s credit, although a pandemic-era federal waiver authorizing free school meals for all students expired in June 2022, the state has continued to ensure all students are fed. 

California must also expand access to intensive tutoring. Under the settlement agreement in the Cayla J v. California lawsuit, California has committed $2 billion of its remaining Covid relief funds to address learning loss with tutoring, additional instructional time and other supports to help students catch up. 

The state must spend all available federal pandemic relief funding, all of which has to be allocated by September 30, 2024, or it will be lost. California schools received $23.4 billion in pandemic relief funding, the most of any state, and has spent about 79% so far. The state must not leave any of this funding on the table—it is an investment in our children that Californians will likely not see again. 

With over 1.2 million kids across California living in poverty, the state also ranks dismally in economic well-being (43rd) and family and community (37th). The child poverty rate is on track to increase due to many effective pandemic-era federal supports slated to end, and no replacements currently in place.

We know that kids who grow up in poverty are more likely to live in poverty as adults, so unless we change course, the state’s poverty issues will only get worse. This is especially true in the San Francisco Bay Area, which has one of the most expensive housing markets in the country. 

It would be remiss not to mention one bright spot in the report: California has the third-highest percentage of children with health insurance. This is largely due to the state eliminating Medi-Cal premiums for kids and allowing children without legal permission to enter the United States to access to health coverage, a policy decision fought for and won by Children Now and its partners. 

Despite some important steps forward, the data tells a story of a wealthy state failing its kids. This is particularly true in the Bay Area, where children of color and from low-income families struggle with chronic absenteeism at much higher rates.

California’s state budget must prioritize the well-being of our kids, which it will not do if the proposed deep cuts to education, foster youth, child care and other kids’ programs materialize. 

It is unthinkable that in the world’s fifth-largest economy, kids are missing school, not meeting basic academic milestones, and ranking near the bottom of the nation in economic security. At stake is not just the future of our children but our state’s competitiveness and authority in the nation and even the world.

California can do a lot better for San Francisco and kids across the state. As Governor Gavin Newsom and state legislators approach the June 15 deadline to pass a budget, they have an opportunity to restore funding measures crucial to our children’s, and therefore our state’s, well-being. It’s not too late to contact your legislator and make your voice heard on behalf of our most important resource: our children.

Ted Lempert is president of Children Now, a nonprofit dedicated to improving children’s health, education and well-being, and California’s member of the KIDS COUNT network.

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