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Education Integral to County’s Future

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Cal State Fullerton President Mildred García struck a chord today with fellow panelists and members of the Orange County Forum when she pointed out that being “pro-education” is a necessity for achieving desired gains for the region.

Garcia was part of a three-person panel that commented on the 2015 Orange County Community Indicators Report, which tracks countywide trends related to the economy, income, housing, education, health, safety and infrastructure.

“You can’t be pro-housing, or pro-health, or pro-infrastructure, or pro-economy unless you are pro-education,” said García, who was introduced as the “First Lady of higher education in this region.”

Steve Churm, a vice president for the Orange County Register, introduced the forum discussion and panelists and also served as moderator.

“As someone who cares passionately and genuinely about my home, I know there’s another side of Orange County. For all of the advantages and all of the blessings of being able to live and work in this community and region, there is a reality of a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots — a proverbial tale of two counties that threatens our very future.”

He said the report “lays out … in stark detail, the worsening plight of a growing portion of our local families.”

Quoting from a Register article, he added, the report “details vividly the disparity in housing, income and education for lower-income families who are trying to provide shelter, food and a future in a community where the cost of living is 46 percent higher than the average in America.”

Churm called upon elected officials, community influencers and business leaders to seek solutions. “If [they] do not act soon, the issues of affordable housing for our present and future workforce, our children’s health and well-being, and the so-called opportunity gap between high- and low-income families as it relates to education, employment and standard of living, threatens to slow, frankly even derail, the promise and the reality of a healthy and balanced Orange County going forward in the 21st century.”

When asked about educational access and the opportunity gap, García cited Latinos as the population group lagging the farthest behind in education, while being the largest ethnic group in the county.

And while Orange County’s high school graduation rate is up, she acknowledged, Latinos account for a high percentage of dropouts from high school.

Noting the districts with the lowest graduation rate — Anaheim and Santa Ana among them — she said: “We do have a county of haves and have-nots.”

Among those who graduate from high school, she cited as a concern the report’s data indicating that “just 50 percent have completed the requirements to enter” the CSU and UC.

“We all know … that if you have a good education, you are more likely to buy a house, more likely to be involved in your community, more likely not to use social services, more likely not to go to prison,” García said.

García agreed with panelist Steve PonTell, president of the nonprofit La Jolla Institute, who urged forming ties with nontraditional partners as a way forward and to “advocate for public education.”

García cited gains made at Cal State Fullerton, including the six-year graduation rate rising to 61 percent from 51 percent, as well as a narrowing of the education gap from 12 percent to 9 percent, all in three years.

Panelist Christina Altmayer, executive director of the Children & Families Commission of Orange County, borrowed García’s phrasing about being “pro-education,” for the well-being of children, a declining population group in the county and one she described as “a precious resource.” She emphasized, “They are so vitally important because they are our future.”

The nonprofit Orange County Forum is a nonpartisan education current affairs forum.