The California Influencer Series

‘Kids can’t learn’ when they’re hungry. How to help all California students succeed

The Influencer Series
The Influencer Series

More from the series

The California Influencers Series

Expand All

When we asked readers to suggest questions on education for our Influencers, one reader posed this one: “How can we improve academics for low income and English-language learners?” Here are their responses:

Michele Siquieros, President of Campaign for College Opportunity

“Most importantly, those teaching low-income and English-language learners need to have faith in their students’ ability to succeed. Without love and high expectations for our children, without teachers who can relate to their students’ experience, all the pedagogy and reform in the world will never improve academics for our most vulnerable students. The question should be reframed, what can educators do to improve their teaching and support for low-income and English-language learners?”

Jonathan Keller, President of California Family Council

“One way to improve academics is public-private partnerships. Schools should pursue mentoring and holistic educational outreach to low-income and English-language learners. Churches and community groups can be invaluable resources.”

Aziza Hasan, Executive Director of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership For Change

“As my friend Hilda Maldonado, Executive Director of Diversity Learning and Instruction at LAUSD reminds me, it feels awful not to know what’s going on. Feelings of belonging and acceptance are critical to improving our capacity to take in information, to learn and to grow. California needs to invest in dual language programs by continuing our current growth trajectory: over the past five years we have increased dual language programs from 40 to 148 programs, and children of California need and deserve more.

“By allowing for kids to both learn in their language and in a new language, we build their sense of pride as well as their language skills and fast track them into feeling more competent and able to meet the learning challenges ahead if them. This allows them to be fully seen and celebrated. We all win as children are invited into society as full participants, and as themselves.”

Tom Campbell, Professor of Law and Professor of Economics at Chapman University

“Prioritize English fluency. Everything else a student can learn in school is less important to success in life and livelihood than the ability to speak, read, and write English fluently. Put political correctness to one side and double down on English. Hold students back if necessary until their English language skills fulfill what is necessary for the next grade.”

We want to hear from you.

This is an important election year in California, and we need your input to help set the course of the conversation.


We are launching an important and long-lasting conversation between you and the leaders and influencers in our state: the California Influencer Series.

You will be a crucial part of this conversation. We hope you will join us in keeping the dialogue focused on the policy issues that matter most.

So, how does it work? We'll ask you questions here over the next six months about what issues matter to you and the concerns and curiosities you have about public policy in your state. After you've weighed in, we'll hold a public vote to see what responses resonate most with our readers. Finally, we'll survey the influencers and bring them together for live public events to discuss solutions to the challenges you identify.

What questions do you have for the Influencers about taxes in California?

Laboni Hoq, Litigation Director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice

“To address this issue, we must first tackle the racial achievement gap. Despite the promise of Brown v. Board of Education, that ended the discredited policy of ‘separate but equal’ schools over 50 years ago, our schools continue to be highly racially segregated. This is due, in large part, to lingering impacts of housing segregation policies, which kept neighborhoods -- and schools within them—racially isolated. Despite evidence that the racial achievement gap lessens when schools are integrated, efforts to do so have been stymied by Supreme Court cases that limit such efforts to countering “de jure”—or official—racial discrimination, as opposed to “de facto”—or lived experience—of these communities, including the racial achievement gap.”

“This gap exists most prominently amongst our most racially segregated communities -- African American, and more recent Latino and Asian immigrants. Despite this troubling backdrop, we should be proud that the California Constitution and certain federal laws still allow us to fulfill the promise of Brown. We must continue to defend the right to equal education for all. In a state as diverse as California, we simply cannot afford to turn our backs on yet another generation of children who will be our future leaders.”

Linda Ackerman, President of Marian Bergeson Excellence in Public Service Series

“California should have the same academic standards and expectations for each and every child despite their income level. There should be an emphasis on children learning English as quickly as possible. Young children especially are especially adept at learning a new language if they are continually exposed to it.”

Astrid Ochoa, Election administration and voting advocate

“The challenge for many low-income English-language learners is that their home life is often disconnected from their school life because families may face a language or cultural barrier to participate in the school community. To build bridges and improve the academics of low income and English-language learners we must look for opportunities to integrate families and support the role of a child’s primary caregiver as teacher.”

Pete Wilson, Governor of California, 1991-1999

“What we should not do for children who are English-as-a-second-language learners, is to make the mistake of teaching them in their native tongue. Youngsters who are taught in English will find that it is well worth early frustration to achieve the motivation and skills that will come much sooner if they are taught in English. Children who are from low income families deserve the same high quality instruction in the classroom as those in affluent communities. There should be standards and statewide testing for children based upon those standards, and the scores should be made public by class as a means of achieving accountability for teacher performance.”

Antonia Hernandez, President and CEO of California Community Foundation

“Hire teachers who are experts in working with and teaching these students. Use their native language as a foundation for learning another language. Invest in increasing the number of quality teachers.”

Andrea Ambriz, Chief of Staff, Service Employees International Union Local 2015

“All children, regardless of family’s economic status, deserve and have a right to a quality education. The differentiator for low income students is the lack of an equal opportunity to reach their potential given inequitable and inaccessible resources available in their schools and communities.

“Safe and clean schools, available and culturally appropriate textbooks, and flexible curricula are all necessary elements to a constructive learning environment, but let’s not forget that the most important ingredient to influence a child’s education is a good teacher.

“As in any learning environment, educators with a range of classroom experiences and teaching methods are appropriate and in fact helpful to a child’s learning process. The value of institutional memory and training that experienced, tenured teachers bring to the classroom complements the experiential growth that new and developing teachers can provide to their students. To that end, we must strive to maintain that balance to equip our students with the best resources and learning opportunities possible. This means recognizing the need to provide students with access to the strongest teachers, including respecting the years of work that good, tenured teachers have served in the classroom.

“We have a responsibility to our students to afford them skilled and well-performing new and tenured teachers to support their learning, and also to recognize the value that these teachers provide to a learning community. Teachers plant the roots for a great classroom. Let’s not forget to value and respect them and allow them to support their own families in return, by compensating them for their years of work through a strong, livable wage building toward their own secure retirement as well.”

Les Simmons, Pastor at South Sacramento Christian Center

“California needs to focus on recruiting a diverse pool of teachers and administrators and provide them resources, training, and time to become outstanding teachers well qualified to lead even our toughest to reach children to academic success.”

Daniel Zingale, Senior Vice President of The California Endowment

“Create safe and welcoming schools and classrooms for all kids. Recruit and retain supportive teachers who students feel they can trust and connect with. Acknowledge and address social and emotional needs of English learners, lower income and students of color. It’s hard to focus and learn when you come to school hungry or afraid deportation will divide your family.”

Ashley Swearengin, President & CEO of the Central Valley Community Foundation

“If we are to improve academics for low income and English-language learners, there are two critical things we need to do. First, we must ensure students have access to high quality early education to reduce or eliminate the gap between where middle class and/or English-speaking students show up relative to their low-income or non English-speaking peers. Second, we’ve got to allow educators the opportunity to innovate on a 100-year-old school model that was not built with success for all low income or English-language learners in mind. By 2030, California will need 1.1 million additional college graduates. If we are to meet these numbers, we must re-think a system built with the “average” student in mind to one more personalized to the needs of each of our students.”

Adama Iwu, Vice President for State Government Relations & Community Outreach with Visa; Co-Founder of We Said Enough

“There is a deep need for universally defined and inclusive systems. If a student is poor, doesn’t speak English or is disabled, we cannot expect the same system that works for other more advantaged students to give them the support that they need. However, it is a mistake to assume that all of these needs should be served in silos. If designed well, the same system that supports the non-English-language learner can support the disabled student. By taking into account their need for additional services, a different learning experience or simply the need for additional wrap-around support, we can create an academic environment that provides an equitable and healthy learning experience that serves all students well.”

Angie Wei, Chief of Staff of California Labor Federation

“Investing in technology, music, arts and other programs to ensure students receive a well-rounded education that inspires and challenges them to be at their best in and out of the classroom. We must provide English-language learners with educators who possess specialized training to address their individual needs, with bilingual education. Educators know best how to address challenges in their classrooms, which is why it’s so important that they are able to speak with a collective voice to advocate for their students. We also need to hire and retain quality educators who are compensated well enough to live in the communities in which they teach. And all California schools, whether charter, private or public, must be held to uniform, high standards that ensure positive outcomes.”

Jim Boren, Executive Director of the Fresno State Institute for Media and Public Trust; Former Executive Editor of The Fresno Bee

“Make sure the best teachers, best principals, best supporting staff are assigned to schools in low-income neighborhoods. Lengthen the school day for students who are not performing at grade level.”

“Research shows that quality teaching and school leadership are the two most impactful school-related factors in student learning. The impact of school leadership tends to be greatest in schools where the learning needs of students are most acute and principals strongly shape the conditions for high-quality teaching and are the prime factor in determining whether teachers stay in high-needs schools.

“Despite these facts, many school districts, including LA Unified, lack comprehensive programs to recruit, train, support, develop and evaluate both teachers and principals. Regardless of whether a student comes from a low-income household, is an English-language learner or comes from a middle-class household, quality teaching and school leadership will positively impact all students, schools and communities.”

Kim Belshé, Executive Director of First 5 LA

“California has a responsibility to help all of its children reach their full potential, regardless of race, class or home language. We know that quality early education – child care and early learning with well trained teachers and care givers providing a caring, language rich environment - has an outsized influence in preparing low income children, English-language learners and children of color for academic and life success. Conversely, our failure to focus on “brain-building” for California’s lower income babies has dire consequences. Stanford researchers have tracked the achievement gap as emerging as early as 18 months of age by toddlers from lower income, less educated families in vocabulary acquisition and language proficiency, key predictors of later academic success. That’s why California’s next governor absolutely must prioritize investments in early learning opportunities to eliminate the achievement gap and strengthen California’s commitment to fairness and opportunity for all.”

John Pérez, Former Speaker of the California Assembly

“Investments in early childhood education help to boost academic performance across all socioeconomic backgrounds. In addition, schools should put more emphasis on involving parents and creating a culture that will make them better advocates for their child’s education. I think that it is also important that schools consider hosting interactions with parents at different times throughout the day to try and accommodate for parents who have non-traditional work schedules. “

Maria Mejia, Los Angeles Director, Gen Next

“As an immigrant from El Salvador, I often think about the factors that were present in my life that drove my family’s academic success. My answer is always the same: reading.

“While working-class, I was lucky to have parents that prioritized and demanded reading at home. It played a critical role at developing my proficiency in the English language, stimulated my imagination (and ambition) and taught me that the world was far larger than I could ever imagine.

“As a society, we need to encourage and cultivate a culture that that embraces the habit of reading. We should not lose sight of the power of literacy in transforming society. Once a child can articulate their ideas, their dreams and future become real, and their level of agency over their own destiny expands exponentially.”

Eric Bauman, Chair of the California Democratic Party

“This is the key question, because much of what makes learning difficult is language barriers and the effects of poverty. Schools must have safety nets for these kids. Services which can be made available to families must be identified and offered. Kids who must work or watch their siblings need to get the extra support. And that support must include a meal program for all who need it. Kids can’t learn when they are hungry. And we must have professionals at our schools who are multilingual and multicultural. Not only will they be role models but the impediments to access are often language barriers which must be removed.”

Jon Fleischman, Publisher of the FlashReport

“California policy makers cannot have real conversations about needed education reforms in the Capitol because, frankly, the California Teachers Association is such a dominant political force and many legitimate reforms are strongly opposed by the CTA. School choice. Charter schools. Teacher Accountability. Decentralizing decision making. Meaningful parental engagement and input. All are valid ideas that, if raised by a legislator, bring the wrath of the state’s most powerful public employee union. What is in the best interests of educating children is not going to mirror what is in the best interests of the CTA.

“The reforms needed to help all kids, which especially include those from lower income families or who do not have English as a first language, are banned from consideration by the California Teachers Association.”

Bonnie Castillo, Executive Director of California Nurses Association

“Properly funded public school education, and experienced and diverse educators are essential to ensuring quality schools and equal opportunity education for low income students and English-language learners. Right wing-inspired attacks on public education, and on public school teachers and their unions sets back academic standards, and further exacerbates the growing educational disparity and economic opportunity for low income students and English-language learners.”

Manuel Pastor, Director of Program for Environmental and Regional Equity at the University of Southern California

“The state’s Local Control Funding Formula uses a complicated formula to steer more funding to English learners, low-income children, and foster youth; that is a good start and its impacts should be continually evaluated. To those who say that the problem is not a lack of money, the evidence suggests that sustained (versus short-term) spending can make a difference – and it’s hard to find a middle-class parent who believes less spending would be a good idea for their own child.

“It’s also crucial to shift from a mindset that says that low-income and English learner students should receive an “easier” curriculum; in fact, the challenge is providing a rigorous instructional program with job-embedded professional learning and coaching for teachers. We also need to shift from the American tradition of seeking to expurgate a second language and instead value and leverage that language; dual language programs have proven to be successful in creating multilingual, high-achieving students, partly because they treat English learners as having an asset and also do not confine language development to a single period but integrate it through content such as science and social studies.

“For kids in underserved neighborhoods, the promise of a quality education is even more difficult to achieve. Our Hispanic Foundation of Silicon Valley has a model worth studying and scaling, in which it reaches out to parents and families to further engage them in the education of their children. The excitement is palpable and should be emulated in communities throughout our state. If we are to truly lift up low income kids, who are often English-language learners, then we must try to lift up the whole family in the process.”

Rosalind Hudnell, Former Vice President of Human Resources at Intel Corp and Former Chair & President of Intel Foundation

“Bluntly—improve the quality of our bilingual programs who experts say is weak. The larger bilingual demographic often means classrooms are majority bilingual. In some cases our students are not being transitioned into English which ideally should happen in 2-4 years. The tendency to just have all content be in Spanish for instance actually doesn’t promote true bilingual acumen. We also need to do a better job of welcoming parents and family recognizing that the need for English proficiency exists for the entire family unit. Our California English Only implemented in the ‘90s in an ironic twist sent everything home in English—including homework has proven exclusive to the community versus inclusive. If we want to improve student performance we must be willing to improve our own.”

Madeleine Brand, Radio host with KCRW Los Angeles

“We need more per-pupil funding. California ranks 41st in spending among the states, according to the California Budget and Policy Center, below the national average and well below better performing states like New York and Massachusetts. We should also make sure that schools in poor neighborhoods and neighborhoods with English-language learners receive more public money than schools in wealthier neighborhoods to make up for the loss in voluntary parent funding.”

Matt Barreto, Professor of Chicano Studies at UCLA; Co-founder of Latino Decisions

“California has a two-tiered and segregated education system that has to be reformed so that all children in the state get an equally strong K-12 educational experience to prepare them all equally well, regardless of what county or zip code they live in. Currently we have too many underfunded, under-resourced inner city schools that serve predominantly Latino and African American students. This is unacceptable. Every single child must be guaranteed the same access to a quality education, to ensure they have the same level playing field in applying for colleges and universities. Our school funding formulas should be reevaluated to find ways to better share the wealth of our state and reduce the disparities between rich and poor districts. Students who grow up in working-class and lower income households should be punished with less access to AP courses, new course books, or newer facilities. They should not have to face larger class sizes and less arts and sports programs because of their zip code. California legislators need to take a hard look at what can be done to make sure all public schools are funded equally.”

Harmeet Dhillon, Republican National Committee, California, and Partner in Dhillon Law Group

“Every child in California should be well-educated. For too many activists, this means ESL education for immigrants, but this is a mistake. There needs to be a hard emphasis placed on bringing students into an English-language educational standard as rapidly as possible, rather than condemning them to second-class education in another language. Low income students deserve the same quality of education as others, and school choice, as well as merit-based pay and performance metrics for schools, will help ensure that there is a level playing field for all.”

Janet Napolitano, President of the University of California

“We can accomplish this by providing a supportive learning environment for those students. Individual tutoring always helps. Perhaps the energies of the retiring baby boomers could be harnessed to provide a “tutoring corps” that teachers could access for their students.”

Timothy White, Chancellor of the California State University

“From personal experience and now as Cal State’s chancellor, I know first-hand that students – from every background, circumstance or status – are bright, driven and talented. Indeed, many studies show that students thrive in school and reach their goals when given an equitable opportunity to be successful. Therefore, the question we must ask is not ‘how do we improve academics for these students,’ but rather, ‘how do we ensure equity of resources and opportunity?’

“As Californians, it is our moral and economic imperative to ensure that every student – regardless of background, circumstance or status – has the resources and support necessary to succeed from preschool to university degree.”

Kim Yamasaki, Executive Director of Center for Asians United for Self Empowerment

“Increase per student spending in California, which still lags behind the national average, but increase measures of accountability for how revenues are being spent. If we ensure that adequate dollars are being invested into dual immersion and wholistic programs that address, poverty, hunger, housing, and workforce placement, we can ensure more low income and ESL students are put on a learning track that ensures college readiness and long term success. When students have a stable home environment, both students and parents have the capacity to be able to focus on education.”

Jon Coupal, President of Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association

“School choice can have the greatest and most positive impact for low income students and parents. Expanded school charters, tax credits and even vouchers can provide options to those who, up to now, have no choices.”

Donna Lucas, CEO and President of Lucas Public Affairs

“The Public Policy Institute recently reported that 40 percent of students in our public schools speak a language other than English at home. In the 2016-17 school year, 21 percent — 1.3 million students — were English learners. A central reason behind the Local Control Funding Formula is to ensure English learner students get the help they need to succeed. Unfortunately, it has been a challenge to track where the funding is going and how it is being used. Before we embark on additional strategies, we need to know how the investment we’re making now is working. Let’s first figure out what we’re doing right and what can be done better by collecting and examining data on English learner outcomes across all school districts.”

Mindy Romero, Founder and Director of the California Civic Engagement Project at USC

“First, we need to recognize and respect the very different experiences students who are English-language learners can have based on their migration story and the current familial and community context in which they find themselves. This includes the societal barriers of exclusion and bias that can be present for many English-language learners. We need more programs that provide personalized and tailored approaches that account for these different experiences and also incorporate continued learning in a child’s native language.”

Cassandra Pye, President of California Women Lead, and Founder and CEO of 3.14 Communications

“I think one good idea is to tie parent education to programming for these two subsets of learners. Oftentimes, it is fear, intimidation by institutions and (in many cases) lack of familiarity with processes which keeps some parents away from the classroom and ill-equipped to extend learning experiences to home. Providing parents with supportive tools on a regular basis would mean learning for these special populations of kids becomes more of a true partnership.”

Catherine Lew, Principal and Co-Founder of The Lew Edwards Group

“A dramatic increase in funding to support our K-14 public school districts and college systems is needed to invest in accessible quality education for the next generation of Californians. At the K-12 level, this also means creating welcoming, inclusive and culturally competent teaching and learning environments for all students, including low-income and English-language learners. Recruiting and retaining quality teachers who are excited and equipped to provide these supportive academics is key, as is recognizing that students must be supported in BOTH college and career pathways. I love what Oakland Unified School District does through its public high school Linked Learning programs, which connect student interest and classroom learning to work and career pathways. Students can select one of many areas of college and career study, such as technology, business and finance, health care, law, engineering, the arts, hospitality culinary, tourism, and more. And for California’s college age students, affordability is key for our low-income students. We must ensure our community colleges continue to be affordable pathways to college transfer and keep our UC and CSU tuitions low.”

Eloy Oakley, Chancellor of California Community Colleges

“Educate the parents, increase the availability of Early Childhood Education and invest more in disadvantaged students.”

Jim Newton, Lecturer of Public Policy at University of California, Los Angeles

“I don’t pretend to be an expert on pedagogy, so I would leave this to educators and urge policy makers to fund classroom-tested methods.”

Jessica Levinson, Professor of Law at Loyola Law School

“Recruit and retain talented teachers and administrators. We do not value public school teachers and administrators, and therefore it is difficult to attract qualified and dedicated teachers and administrators who wish to stay in the profession for their careers. Teachers are administrators are the single-most important part of a child’s education.”

Mike Madrid, Principal of Grassroots Lab

“Invest more resources while requiring greater accountability for student outcomes - the idea that we can not and should not do both is one of the great tragedies in this era of hyper-partisanship.”

Ron George, Former Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court

“Academics for low-income and English-language learners can be improved by providing additional after-hours tutoring and support for those in need.”

Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean and Professor of Law at University of California, Berkeley School of Law

“Greatly expand preschool programs. Greatly expand expenditures for education, especially in disadvantaged areas.”

Abby Porth, Executive Director of Jewish Community Relations Council of San Francisco

“One need not invent new solutions to improve academic opportunity for low income and English-language learner students in California. We have always known that small class size coupled with credentialed, well supported and enthusiastic teachers is the way to ensure that students, particularly those who need added attention, are able to achieve their academic potential. The challenge is to California’s elected officials: will they take the brave steps necessary to lead Californians in supporting increased spending for quality public education, in which small class size and increased teacher pay and professional development are a priority? Until California voters insist that our per pupil spending is on par with that of other states, we will continue to see wide achievement gaps for low income and English-language learners, increased flight from public to private education, and that California is not adequately preparing its diverse young population to participate in its economy.

Roger Salazar, President of Alza Strategies

“Each district has unique needs that require unique approaches. This is especially true in low-income communities and in districts with students who have distinct needs, such as English-language learners. The state, working with county and local stakeholders, should work with local school districts to help them develop plans that address specific needs, and provide the support they need to help their students succeed.”

Kristin Olsen, Former minority leader in the California Assembly, and Stanislaus County Supervisor

“We can improve academics for low-income and English-language learners by holding teachers and administrators accountable for quality instruction and by providing a variety of education environments, acknowledging that not all students learn the same way. We must become more student-focused, rather than adult-focused, in our schools.”