Santa Clara County candidates sound off on education
Santa Clara County officials want candidates running for office to let the voters know how they will prioritize the needs of children. Photo courtesy of FIRST 5.

    As ballots start arriving in the mail this week, Santa Clara County education leaders are making it easier for parents to learn which candidates will make children their top priority.

    The Santa Clara County Office of Education contacted more than 200 candidates running in local and state races with a survey asking them to pitch their thoughts on children’s issues.

    While children have been a focus in the county for years, some say there is more work to be done.

    “(The guide) tries to have people that are running for office prioritize and articulate what their vision is for kids,” said Dana Bunnett, executive director of Kids in Common, a community partner on the survey. “I want politicians to always ask, ‘How will this help children or how will this impact children?’ on any policy decision.”

    Only four out of 10 candidates running in local races responded to the survey.

    San Jose mayoral candidates

    Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez said access to affordable housing is a top priority when it comes to a child’s quality of life both in the voter guide and interviews.

    “When you think about great communities with great quality of life in them, you’re looking at areas that pay attention to families,” Chavez told San José Spotlight. “The highest priority we have is making sure we have enough safe, affordable housing. What that means is making sure that we have housing both for families but also for teachers.”

    Silicon Valley has not been immune to nationwide teacher shortages as educators struggle with the area’s competitive and costly housing market. School districts are looking at ways to build more teacher housing to lure new educators and are seeking funds for new projects on the November ballot. Meanwhile, the homeless student population continues to grow, with 11.2% of San Jose State University students unhoused based on 2021 data.

    San Jose Councilmember Matt Mahan, who is running against Chavez in the mayor’s race, said more child care and summer programs will help working families.

    “For our kids to thrive – adults need to do better, starting with those in leadership,” Mahan, who did not respond to the survey, told San José Spotlight. “We need to jumpstart (the child care) sector and expand offerings. The city can help by identifying appropriate sites, including using public land, better streamlining within the permitting process, and provide grants to new operators to help them get up and running.”

    More than 300 child care centers shuttered their doors over the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving parents unable to work.

    Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors: District 1 

    San Jose Councilmember Sylvia Arenas, who terms out in 2024, said families should have access to a comprehensive system that partners with schools and community organizations to provide mental health services and child care from birth through adulthood. She said not responding to the survey indicates a lack of commitment to children’s issues.

    A recent report revealed that free, public child care could allow 7,000 Santa Clara County households to afford basic needs without aid.

    “​​We need to continue to find the other systems that our children are touching or their families are interacting with, so that they can receive support services outside of school,” Arenas told San José Spotlight.

    Johnny Khamis, a former city councilmember running against Arenas, said mental health services are still severely lacking for the county’s children despite widespread attention to the issue.

    The county’s mental health system is struggling, with projects such as a youth psychiatric facility behind schedule. School districts have added wellness centers and more counseling to tackle mental health needs brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

    “Children’s issues have received a lot of lip service, a lot of talk but not a lot of action,” Khamis told San José Spotlight. “I will definitely work with our schools to see what we can do to provide counseling.”

    Both Khamis and Arenas responded to the survey.

    San Jose City Council: District 3 

    Candidate Irene Smith, a small business owner with experience in mental health work, didn’t complete the survey. But she told San José Spotlight that schools need to implement a mental health curriculum that goes beyond counseling to address mental health needs. Schools can train teachers in mental health identification and therapy techniques, while also teaching students about mental health in the classroom.

    “We’re in the middle of a mental health crisis for young people in California, and (District 3) in particular,” Smith said. “Schools are just overwhelmed. They can’t handle all the influx of mental health issues from the kids, so how can we enable those teachers and bring that education into classrooms?”

    Omar Torres, a San Jose-Evergreen Community College trustee running against Smith for the downtown city council seat, said he’d focus on increasing early education and funding libraries if elected. Torres completed the survey.

    A slew of education bills passed last month that increased access to early education, including a law that allows families using state assistance programs like MediCal to automatically qualify for subsidized preschool. East San Jose’s Cesar Chavez Early Learning Center received $7 million in state funding last month to bolster its programs, especially for low-income minority families.

    “I want to make sure that we continue to push for early education, not only at the county level but also work with our (city) staff on early education, fully fund our libraries and their programs, from the literacy programs to the computer programs,” Torres told San José Spotlight. “It’s very unfortunate that there are folks running for San Jose City Council who do not want to look at the many challenges that our youth have right now.”

    The four candidates running for San Jose City Council in districts 5 and 7 did not respond to the survey.

    Read the full voter’s guide here.

    Contact Loan-Anh Pham at [email protected] or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.

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