Senator Richard Pan held his first town hall meeting last week before a crowd of concerned and sometimes hostile parents worried about a controversial piece of legislation he introduced in December, SB 18, the California Children and Youth Bill of Rights. Many parents came to the meeting thinking this bill would give government officials the right to overrule the education and healthcare decisions they make for their children.
Based on the way the the bill is currently written, these parents are not alone in their fears. Even the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times wrote the bill was “troubling”, “overly ambitious,” and “disturbing to contemplate.” The Times went on to say the bill’s “words signal potential trouble both to individual-rights advocates and to people concerned about the realities of budgets that must meet the needs of many.”
But Pan and the bill’s official sponsor Jim Steyer, a politically powerful child-welfare activist, both tried to reassure parents that their intent was simply to insure the state makes children one of their top spending priorities. Explaining his reasoning for the vague and broad language of the bill, Pan explained he did this initially in order to meet bill introduction deadlines, but he promised bill details will be added before SB 18 is reviewed by its first policy committee. Pan and Steyer said those additional details will be based on suggestions gathered from parents throughout the state.
Both Pan and Steyer referred to a report put together by Steyer’s organization, Common Sense Kids Action, which details the problems facing the state’s children. According to the report, California has the second worst standard of living for kids in the nation. One in four don’t have enough food to eat every day, seventy-five percent don’t receive important health screenings, and one million kids under the age of five don’t have access to licensed child care. In the minds of Pan and Steyer, the state could solve child poverty if they could just get state government to spend more money on children.
“We believe in the Children’s Bill of Rights for a simple reason,” Steyer told the crowd of parents. “California, the golden state, the capital of which we are sitting in, is the sixth largest economy in the world, but we also have the 47th out of 50th standard of living for children…. Something is not right in that picture.”
“It is absolutely inexcusable that there are any children born here in Sacramento who don’t have quality health care, early childhood education, a quality public education… or the kind of services that the four Steyer children have had,” Steyer said. “It is up to us to change that…. You have to do that through legislation.”
Steyer and Pan believe they can get a larger portion of the state budget dedicated to pay for child-centered programs if they pass a law establishing a bill of rights specifically for kids. But it was the very use of the word “rights” in association with vague and broad concepts like “emotional well-being” or “parents… who act in their best interest,” that worried many of those attending the town hall meeting.
One of those parents was business owner Matthew Recore. “The way it is written, it looks like control is going to be turned over to the government, and choice is going to be taken away from the parent,” he told the panel. Recore wanted to know how Pan was going to define “appropriate healthcare,” one of the rights guaranteed in SB 18, and he wanted to know what the penalty was going to be “for not following what you or anyone else decides what is appropriate?”
Another homeschooling mom who doesn’t vaccinate her children and gave birth to them at home, wanted to know if SB 18 was going to infringe on the choices she made for her children.
Pan repeatedly assured parents the bill will not violate parental rights already established by law, but the bill simply lists what the state government should aspire to provide children. “The purpose of this bill is not to go and say that there is only one way to parent your child,” said Pan. “We aren’t looking to mandate going to preschool… . The purpose of the bill is not to punish people… [, but to]support children and their families and that includes their parents.”
Yet when asked if this new bill of rights would give minors the right to sue their parents for violating one of these new rights, the answer lacked certainty. Assembly Kevin McCarty, a Sacramento legislator on Pan’s panel, initially avoided answering the question, but talked instead about the need to spend less money on prisons and more money on schools. When pressed, however, he said, “I don’t believe so.”
Pan did not give a definitive answer on the right to sue question either, but responded saying, “The point of the bill is not to increase lawsuits… . The bill has been generally supported by organizations that want to reduce lawsuits.”
A large contingent of the town hall crowd didn’t trust Pan to protect parental rights because of SB 277, a bill Pan authored and the Governor signed over a year ago, which mandates vaccines for all children attending public school. This bill removed a waiver that existed for parents who didn’t want their children vaccinated for religious or personal reasons. SB 18 is seen by this group of parents as another attempt by Pan to overrule the health care choices parents make for their children.
There was also a smaller contingent of SB 18 supporters who asked Pan to include funding in the bill for child care, protections for LGBT+ students, and more stringent family leave requirements for businesses. Executive Director Kathy Fleming of Fairy Tale Town, a park in Sacramento, asked Pan to add the “right to play,” to the bill of rights. That suggestion was met with lots of enthusiasm from Pan and his panelists, who sighted studies showing how play was good for the social and cognitive development of children.
Other parents asked how all these new programs were going to be paid for knowing the state is already struggling to fund repairs for the state’s crumbling transportation and water infrastructure, as well as other programs already providing help for children. Pan had no answer for this question other than to say he’s exploring various options and he believes SB 18 is needed to insure “children are a top priority” in the state budget.
Before SB 18 can move forward and be assigned to a policy committee within the Senate, the bill must be amended with specific code language detailing what the bill will actually do. That will have to happen within the next month or so if the bill is to move forward.
Now is the time to contact your Senators and let them know your concerns about SB 18. If you don’t know who your California Senator is, you can find his or her contact information here: http://findyourrep.legislature.ca.gov/