As California lawmakers begin to take action on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s broad plan for early-childhood education (ECE) in the state, an Assembly commission is recommending the creation of a policy council to advise state leaders, more input from parents and significant increases in pay for early educators.
The report lays out a plan to gradually increase access to care and education programs for families in poverty, and it encourages stronger partnerships between school districts and early learning providers.
Based on an approach called “targeted universalism,” the plan sets an overall goal and then calls for implementing “targeted strategies so that varying needs of different groups can be met — with an explicit focus on disadvantaged groups — while working towards the universal goal,” the authors write.
“It’s such a concrete roadmap,” Erin Gabel, deputy director for external and governmental affairs with First 5 California, an organization funded by state tax dollars that supports children birth through 5-years-old, said in an interview.
The Assembly Blue Ribbon Commission on Early Childhood Education formed two years ago to plan improvements to what has long been considered a fragmented system that can be difficult for parents with young children to navigate. During the recession, early-childhood programs in the state also experienced over $1 billion in budget cuts, and funding has not returned to pre-recession levels, according to a report from the Learning Policy Institute.
"California, once a leader in early childhood education [ECE], now lags behind most states," Stanford University Professor Deborah Stipek, wrote in a research brief released last fall, adding that low-income children in California are less ready for kindergarten than demographically similar children in other states.
The National Institute for Early Education Research’s annual State of Preschool yearbook, released earlier this month, also showed that while California has increased spending on programs for 3- and 4-year-olds since 2017, quality lags behind that of many other states.
Newsom’s plan has multiple parts, including:
- $750 million to help districts expand full-day kindergarten program.
- Almost $124 million to enroll more low-income 4-year-olds in the state preschool program.
- $500 million for both child care facilities and quality improvement efforts.
- $78.9 million in both federal and state funds to expand home-visiting programs for families eligible for the state’s public assistance program.
“So much of what we’ve been advocating for the next four years is included in this one down payment,” Gabel said.
Last week, an Assembly education committee gave initial approval to a package of early-childhood bills that would expand access to preschool and raise the reimbursement rates paid to providers, which would allow them to increase wages for teachers. NIEER’s report highlighted this topic in its recent “yearbook,” and the Assembly commission also makes it a focus of its recommendations.
“These caregivers and teachers – many of whom are women of color – often have low wages and lack basic benefits despite the increased emphasis on qualifications and quality for the ECE workforce,” the authors write, noting that the median wage for child care employees in 2017 was $12.29 per hour, compared to $19.70 for all workers. The report calls for ECE teachers with similar education and experience to earn the same salaries as teachers in transitional kindergarten (TK) through 3rd grade, and it recommends “Standards for the ECE workforce cannot be increased until compensation levels are significantly raised.”
The full-day kindergarten debate
On full-day kindergarten — an issue also high on the list for other governors this year — both researchers and school districts that already offer full-day programs are raising questions about the wisdom of focusing on full-day kindergarten when access to programs for 3- and 4-year-olds is more limited.
Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, released data last week showing that three-fourths of the state’s elementary schools offer full-day kindergarten and that most of those schools are in low-income communities.
The Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, is among districts offering full-day kindergarten. The district’s board last week expressed support for some aspects of the governor’s ECE plan, but also urged “the Governor to consider amending his proposed $750 million allocation for the expansion of full-day kindergarten so that districts who already provide full-day kindergarten, including Los Angeles Unified, can also benefit from this investment in early education.”
In March, the Legislative Analyst's Office, also recommended against more grants for kindergarten facilities at this time, based on the information that most districts that applied for $100 million in the 2018-19 budget for facilities have full-day programs and are using the funds for renovation.
But Gabel said it doesn’t make sense for children who have attended a full-day preschool program to, in some cases, go into a half-day kindergarten. Addressing challenges such as facility upgrades, professional development and other “infrastructure” issues that come with moving from a half- to a full-day program would remove any barriers currently in the way.
The Berkeley analysis also shows that in contrast to children’s access to full-day kindergarten, many 4-year-olds in low-income families live in communities without TK — a model that the state created in 2010 to serve children whose birthdays fall on or before Dec. 1. The legislature provided funding for an expanded version of the program in 2015 that allows districts to receive money for 4-year-olds who don’t turn 5 until late March, but not all districts offer that program.
“This progressive distribution of TK may help narrow disparities in early learning — if we assume that exposure to TK by disadvantaged children yields discernible benefits," the researchers write. "The initial evaluation of TK’s short-term effects on participating children, conducted by the American Institutes of Research in San Mateo, offers empirical support for this assumption."
Called the Pre-K for All Act, one of the Assembly bills aims to ensure that both 3- and 4-year-olds within neighborhoods where at 70% of children are eligible for free or reduced-price meals have access to either the California State Preschool Program (CSPP) or TK. The bill also “expresses legislative intent that all 4-year-old children and all eligible 3-year-old children within these specified school boundaries have access to the CSPP or other child development program.”
A separate bill in the Senate would allow districts to collect average daily attendance funding for TK students whose birthdays fall after Dec. 1 — essentially including 4-year-olds in the school finance formula. The current law only allows them to collect state funding for children who turn 5 by Dec. 1.
Gabel added that the Assembly’s report also reflects an “evolution in the nature of First 5’s relationship with state policymakers.” Approved by voters in 1998, First 5 California and its 58 county commissions use tobacco tax dollars and other resources to fund services for children from birth to 5. They also work with a variety of other agencies and providers to improve and expand programs for families with young children.
"First 5 is an essential partner for child development and family-strengthening services and for two-generation systems change," the report says.