Kate Gordon, Ann O'Leary: Thinking about young Californians, their future

March 2, 2013 

Sacramento is abuzz with the news of Michael Rubio's sudden departure from the California Senate and his decision to join Chevron as its chief state lobbyist. But with all the column inches dedicated to Rubio's career change, no one seems to be paying attention to the real issue at hand: Namely, the critical need for Rubio's successor to focus on the urgent challenges facing the residents -- and specifically, the children -- of California's 16th Senate District.

By any measure, the 16th district, which includes Fresno, Kern, Kings and Tulare counties, is ground zero for many of the problems faced by the next generation of Californians. In every county represented in Rubio's former district, more than 30 percent of children live in poverty; student educational performance falls far behind that of other counties in California; and nearly one-third of families in each county are headed by a single parent. The trends don't appear to be improving. In Kern County, the child poverty rates have risen nearly 16 percent since 2010, the year Rubio was elected to the state Senate.

In the current legislative session, the 16th district's new senator will have several opportunities to shape policy that could transform the lives of children in their region. For example, Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed a change to the state school funding formula that would direct more money to schools with higher concentrations of children from low-income families, and those who are English language learners. The change is expected to overwhelmingly benefit the schools in this region, according to an analysis by the California Department of Finance.

The new senator will also have the opportunity to decide how to spend funds from Proposition 39, passed by voters last November, which could direct as much as half a billion dollars to energy efficiency projects in the state's public schools. The schools and students in Senate District 16 urgently need such improvements.

Our research shows that among school districts in Fresno, Kern, Kings, and Tulare counties, nearly one in three has not held a local bond election since 1983. That means that these districts have had essentially no funding for the kinds of capital improvements that provide better air quality and a healthier learning environment for students. As these schools age and decay, not only do they pose a health risk to the students and teachers who occupy them, they also leak valuable energy dollars out every door and window. A targeted investment of Proposition 39 funds could help keep the 16th district's school buildings run efficiently and save money on energy bills -- money that can be re-invested in the classroom.

Healthy learning environments are even more important for children who live under a constant environmental burden. According to the California Environmental Protection Agency's pollution index, out of roughly 1,700 ZIP codes in the state, Senate District 16 has three in the top 10. In those three ZIP codes, more than 50,000 children are exposed to heightened ozone and air pollution levels, proximity to toxic sites and other environmental hazards.

Michael Rubio's departure offers the chance for District 16 voters to not only address these systemic problems, but to lead the state in finding new and innovative solutions to them. For instance, instead of falling back onto its traditional dependence on oil and gas drilling as its major economic development strategy, the district could look toward other, less risky economic development strategies -- such as investments in emerging industries like renewable energy. As the state debates whether to tap the newly-discovered Monterey Shale oil formation -- and in doing so, potentially exacerbate current air and water pollution levels in the region -- District 16 could benefit from leadership that puts the health and well-being of its children at the forefront.

These are huge challenges, but they are also big opportunities for whoever replaces Rubio to represent this important region. Looking to the future, the 16th District's 850,000-plus residents should demand their new senator address the overlapping issues of high child poverty, inadequate public schools, and poor air and water quality.

When Rubio was elected in 2010, he was the state's youngest senator. It's now time to bring in a new senator who is focused on the youngest among us, the next generation of Californians.

Kate Gordon is the vice president of the Energy & Climate program at Next Generation, a San Francisco-based think tank. Ann O'Leary is the vice president of Children & Families program at Next Generation.

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