Three of six leading candidates vying for California’s top political post faced off Tuesday night during a forum on children at the Los Angeles Trade-Technical College.
Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, California Treasurer John Chiang of Torrance and former state schools chief Delaine Eastin were grilled on issues ranging from education to child poverty and the foster-care system ahead of the June 5 primary election.
Front-runner Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who formerly served as mayor of San Francisco, was conspicuously absent Tuesday. The top two Republican candidates – businessman John Cox from Rancho Santa Fe in San Diego County and Assemblyman Travis Allen of Huntington Beach – were also not present.
When Villaraigosa was asked what he would do to improve the lives of children, he said he would focus on early childhood education, including putting an early child education coordinator in the governor’s cabinet, and ensure that every child in the state has access to healthcare.
“Right now, even the undocumented have healthcare but many children don’t have access to healthcare,” the former state Assembly speaker said.
Chiang said among his top priorities are providing a quality education in every community, making strong investments in education and overcoming teacher shortages.
“Too many students today are living with families that have extraordinary housing challenges,” Chiang said before the forum. “One in every five Californians lives in poverty. If we can tackle that, we will provide a much more significant and stronger foundation for children to succeed.”
In addition, too many schools don’t have the financial means to update their curriculum, which Chiang said “should never happen” in California, the world’s fifth largest economy.
Eastin, a former state assemblywoman, said the next governor should undo the damage done by previous cuts to child-development funds.
“We have over 300,000 families on a waiting list for child care; that’s 300,000 underemployed or unemployed women mostly,” she said. “The cuts were very deep and they’ve never been fully corrected.”
— LCHC (@LCHC_CA) May 16, 2018
There should also be a dramatic increase in K-12 investment, she said. California, which used to be tied with New York, has now dropped to 41st out of the nation’s 50 states in per pupil spending.
“New York now spends more than twice as much per child as California,” she said. “It’s that bad.”
“Building Our Future: A Forum on Children with California’s Gubernatorial Candidates” drew more than 500 attendees Tuesday as more than two dozen candidates jockey to replace Gov. Jerry Brown, who is terming out as the state’s longest serving governor.
Newsom is expected to capture the top spot in the top-two primary, with Villaraigosa, or possibly one of the Republican candidates, favored to capture the second spot in the Nov. 6th run-off election, American Politics Professor John “Jack” Pitney, Jr. of Claremont McKenna College said by phone.
But Pitney conceded that the polls could shift in the next few weeks.
“There could be a last-minute rally of nerds for John Chiang,” the professor said of the former state controller. “I say that as a fellow nerd.”
With regard to education, Villaraigosa – once an LA teachers’ union organizer who later challenged such unions on tenure and other issues – is benefiting from the deep pockets of charter-school supporters. Meanwhile, Newsom has the powerful endorsement of the California Teachers Association, which supports traditional public schools over charter schools.
While the issue of charter schools is of great interest to these entities, it’s not a top-tier issue for most California residents, Pitney said.
But the state of the economy and taxes are top concerns, Pitney said. And gubernatorial candidates, he argued, should be talking about the long-term fiscal future of the state.
While Brown is leaving behind a balanced budget, the retirement of the baby boom generation and pension obligations will put significant pressure on both state and local governments in the long run, Pitney said.
“But nobody wants to talk about that because addressing that issue will involve either spending cuts or tax increases,” he said.
Tuesday’s nonpartisan forum was hosted by Children’s Defense Fund-California, The Children’s Partnership and The Chronicle of Social Change in partnership with the Los Angeles Daily News, LA School Report, among others.
Eric Dory, 11, stood at an audience microphone for one last question of the candidates as the forum wound to a conclusion.
What would they do to make life better for his friends – other kids, he asked.
The answers were in the spirit of what the three candidates talked about much of the night.
But for the crowd looking on, it came from perhaps the best person to ask – a kid.
Eric was satisfied – for the moment.
“I got that they will prioritize resources,” he said. “They’re just going to do the best they can as governor.”
Ryan Carter contributed to this story.