A case for high-quality early learning in California

A young girl looks examines the illustrations in a book. (Photo: Tatiana Bobkova, via Shutterstock)

Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom is exactly right when he states that “early childhood education and affordable high-quality child care pays dividends for that child’s growth, and for our state’s economic growth.”

He eloquently made the case during the campaign and we concur: Early learning opportunities for infants, toddlers and preschoolers are crucial for their development, in terms of future educational attainment, adult earnings and lifetime well-being, and have two generational impacts by allowing families to work and thrive.

By investing in children and families the state earns a high rate of return on its investments. To achieve this vision, California policymakers, researchers, advocates, practitioners and employers must come together to fix the state’s convoluted child care finance system, invest in and support the workforce and ensure children have access to high-quality early learning settings.

The cost of care often exceeds the cost of University of California tuition and that cost is being born in large part by young families just starting out.

Although California is the fifth largest economy in the world, surpassed only by the U.S. overall, China, Japan and Germany, we are sadly behind in providing families with access to high-quality early learning opportunities and leveraging the social and economic benefits of a strong early care and education system. The system we do have is fragile and under resourced, which perpetuates the struggle of working families as they search for quality child care and preschool.

In fact, in 2016 nearly 200,000 California parents had to quit a job, turn down a job or greatly change their job because of struggles finding adequate child care.  Only 14 percent of eligible infants and toddlers having access to subsidized child care, and only 49 percent of all 3- and 4-year-olds in California attend preschool. The cost of care often exceeds the cost of University of California tuition and that cost is being born in large part by young families just starting out and women, who are acutely impacted by the lack of access to quality child care.

Providing access to more families is critical, but in order to change the trajectory for children, we must also ensure the quality of early childhood experiences.

Research shows that high-quality programs reduce the likelihood of children needing special education supports, improve graduation rates and lead to higher future earnings.  A cornerstone to providing quality early learning programs is investing in the workforce. Unfortunately, the early learning workforce is plagued by turn over, with 1 in 4 caregivers leaving the field statewide annually.

In 2019 the governor-elect and policymakers need to set high expectations for what California can accomplish.

This is in no small part because compensation doesn’t reflect the importance of this profession, with the median income for a child care worker in 2017 at only $12.29 an hour – leaving many in the field suffering from the stresses of poverty and relying on public benefit programs to survive. Effectively building the architecture of a child’s brain – the complex work that high-quality early learning settings achieve – requires nurturing, well- trained, well-compensated caregivers.

We are not only neglecting our future economy, but our present one when we fail to support the early learning workforce.

These are significant challenges, but together we absolutely can do the deeper work to fix California’s early learning system, to be bold and to make sure we seize this historic moment.  Without a doubt, it will take time, but in 2019 the governor-elect and policymakers need to set high expectations for what California can accomplish – to put a clear vision in place for what children, families and the public can expect from our early learning system.

It will require fixing an antiquated, fragmented finance system so that it is clearer, stabilizes the supply of early learning settings and incentivizes quality.

At the same time, we need to expand access to quality early learning opportunities for all children and families that make up our diverse state, starting with the state’s most vulnerable, while simultaneously ensuring we have the necessary infrastructure in place to support that expansion. This infrastructure includes investing in and building up the capacity of the early learning workforce through strategies like expanding the capacity of higher education to serve new and existing caregivers, apprenticeship programs, and ongoing, tailored coaching opportunities.

We can put this bold vision in place and then build strategically over time to achieve it. California’s future prosperity lies in whether the state dedicates itself today, to ensuring all children have every opportunity to succeed from the very start.

Editor’s Note: Samantha Tran is the senior managing director of education policy at Children Now. Jim Wunderman is president and CEO of the Bay Area Council.

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