Editor’s note: This is the third of a three-part series in which our experts delve into the details of California Governor Gavin Newsom’s January budget proposal. Previously, we examined the Governor’s proposals for higher education and K-12.
When my husband and I learned we were expecting our first daughter (now almost five years old), we immediately started exploring childcare options. We’re privileged to both have good jobs, and I studied early childhood education professionally: we had the means and the knowledge to navigate California’s harsh childcare landscape. Even with all those advantages — and, what’s more, the ability to pay deposits to join more than a dozen waitlists — we heard back from only two infant-care programs with available spots by the time our daughter was born. It served as a painful reminder that our state leaves far too many families — especially families who can’t afford exorbitant deposits or don’t have time to learn the system’s intricacies — to fend for themselves.
And that was all before COVID-19. This pandemic has disrupted all areas of American life, but few more than early childhood education. That’s why it’s so important that this year’s California budget invest in our youngest children — especially children of color and children from lower-income families. We desperately need not just to reverse the damage but to build a stronger early childhood education system than ever before. We have a roadmap for how to do that: the recently released Master Plan for Early Learning and Care. Governor Newsom’s budget proposal includes some good suggestions that align with that plan, but there’s plenty more to do if we want to bounce back from this crisis and build a California with opportunity for all our children, regardless of their race, class, or zip code.
One of the most significant proposals in Governor Newsom’s early childhood budget proposal is $250 million in grants for districts to offer early access to transitional kindergarten for younger students. These grants align with the Master Plan and are an essential step toward universal preschool for all four-year-olds across the state, something 93 percent of parents in our recent parent survey support. The districts impacted most severely by the pandemic and those that serve the most children who are low-income, in poverty, unhoused, or in foster care should be prioritized recipients of the grants. Moreover, to make sure this effort succeeds, we need to support educators so that they are ready to welcome younger students into elementary schools. Our schools need to be “children-ready” without expecting children to be “school-ready,” and it’s on all of us to help them.
For childcare providers, the budget includes $55 million to meet needs resulting from the pandemic. This investment is critical because the childcare industry has been hit especially hard by the pandemic. According to a July 2020 survey of childcare providers by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, more than 75 percent of open programs have experienced a loss of income from families, and 70 percent are unable to provide health benefits for all of their teaching staff. Half of the parents in our new poll whose children are in home- or center-based care programs say those programs have reduced their hours as a result of the pandemic.
The budget proposal also includes commendable investments to support children in our education system who are too often forgotten: $300 million for early intervention services for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers with special needs and $50 million to help transitional kindergarten teachers create inclusive classrooms for children with disabilities, work with dual language learners, and mitigate implicit biases.
Finally, as my colleagues Manny and Natalie have noted, the $15 million Governor Newsom included for a Cradle to Career education data system is vital for students of all ages, and our youngest learners are no exception. We know that early education is an investment that pays big dividends for children, families, and our economy as a whole. But to know which specific programs and ideas are helping kids the most — and what additional support they need — we need to understand how students fare as they progress into elementary school, high school, college, and beyond. A unified, easy-to-use data system is the first step.
Despite all of these critical investments, the Governor’s budget proposal leaves room for improvement in some key areas.
First, we need to increase reimbursement rates for early educators to reflect the actual cost of care. Our early educators, primarily women of color, show up every day to teach our children, risking exposure to the virus, while needing to find other arrangements for their own children. Yet nearly 60 percent of these caregivers qualify for public assistance because most of them make near-poverty wages and are paid less than half the salary of kindergarten teachers. Early educators in California are six times more likely to live in poverty than K-12 teachers, and Black early educators are 50 percent more likely to live in poverty than their White colleagues. It’s unconscionable and counterproductive that we don’t pay the people to whom we entrust our youngest children’s safety and education a living wage.
Second, we would like to see the Governor fund the Whole Child Equity proposal that we have been advocating for alongside Advancement Project California and many other partners. The proposal would create an Equity Index and establish a Whole Family Wellness Hubs pilot program in the highest-need areas as determined by the Equity Index.
And last, but certainly not least, we need more subsidized slots for infant and toddler care. As of 2017, just one in nine eligible zero to five-year-olds were enrolled in subsidized childcare programs that provided year-round, all-day care. The lack of subsidies creates disastrous and preventable educational inequities. In our survey, sixty-two percent of parents of color said they couldn’t afford to pay more than $100 per week for childcare. Yet the average cost of infant care in California is more than three times that amount. To his credit, Governor Newsom included $44 million for new subsidized care slots, and we love that the funding would be ongoing, not a one-time infusion. But it’s going to take a much more serious commitment to make good on the promise of high-quality early childhood education for every child in California.
There are few better ways to invest public funds than in early childhood care and education. Early learning sets up students for success in the critical early years of their education. And studies show that every dollar spent on early education returns as much as $7 over the long term. On the flip side, of course, a lack of access to quality childcare doesn’t just hurt kids, it strains families: it forces parents — especially single parents, women, and women of color — to make impossible decisions, and sets back our whole economy. California is home to 2.8 million children ages five and younger. That’s more than the total number of college students in the state. But we don’t invest in early childhood education the way we do in K-12 or higher education. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that childcare and early education are both crucial and fragile. As Natalie wrote last week, “if anything positive can come out of this terrible crisis it should be that we begin recreating systems to serve the people have historically shut out.” Where better to start than by giving the youngest Californians a fair shot from the start?
Hana Ma is a Senior Policy Analyst at The Education Trust–West. She leads ETW’s early education portfolio and contributes to research and analysis of policies and practices in support of education equity for California’s youngest children, particularly children from families of color and from lower income communities. Hana holds B.A. degrees in French and Psychology from UCLA and a J.D. from the University of San Diego School of Law.