Any parent who has begun researching preschools quickly learns the sad state of affairs in California: costs are high, availability is low and finding school schedules that mesh with parents’ work hours can seem practically impossible, especially for low-income families.
But early childhood education advocates are hopeful that the state may finally be making strides in the right direction to expand preschool access and quality.
In his first budget, Gov. Gavin Newsom earlier this year proposed a first step toward implementing universal preschool statewide by including nearly $125 million to expand the state’s subsidized full-day, year-round preschool program to all low-income 4-year-olds, plus another $500 million for childcare infrastructure and training, as well as an additional $10 million to develop a long-term plan for universal preschool.
Meanwhile, state Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, has introduced a package of bills that would more than double the state’s $1.2 billion preschool budget to fund preschool for all low-income 3- and 4-year-olds, as well as middle-income families just outside the income limits.
While the fate of these proposals won’t be clear until this summer, as the state’s $209 billion budget winds its way through hearings, preschool proponents say it seems support is lining up for overdue improvements.
When Newsom proposed his budget, "it was a breath of fresh air that it wouldn’t be such a struggle to educate this administration," says Mary Ignatius, statewide organizer in San Francisco for Parent Voices, a parent-led advocacy group for affordable, accessible childcare. "They are coming in with a deep belief in the earliest years and really starting children off with the strongest start possible. … We’re in this perfect alignment across the different entities and decision-makers across the system."
Since a statewide ballot measure to fund universal preschool was rejected by California voters in 2006, public opinion has shifted and research has further solidified the benefits of high-quality preschool. A recent poll showed 77 percent of respondents supported Newsom’s early childhood programs, of which universal preschool is just one.
"There’s much more research now that demonstrates the long-term benefits," says Deborah Stipek, a professor of education at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education and a longtime advocate for high-quality preschool.
Among the benefits of high-quality preschool are lower retention rates (children being held back in school), lower participation in special education, higher high school graduation rates, higher college participation and lower incarceration rates – all of which would result in substantial cost savings to the state.
"The achievement gap in California associated with race, ethnicity and income is one of the largest in the country. That gap is there before children enter kindergarten, and it pretty much persists," Stipek adds. "The only way we’re going to address that gap seriously is if we address the disparities in children before they start school."
Expanding High-Quality Preschool
But Stipek and others caution that the benefits will come only with the expansion of high-quality preschool, an expensive hurdle in a state that needs to improve both the education and salaries of early childcare providers and preschool teachers, who are already in short supply.
While some states require preschool teachers to have a bachelor’s degree and teaching certificate, California requires only 24 units, or eight courses, of child development classes, Stipek says. The state has added complexities including the fact that half its children under age 5 – some three million kids – have at least one immigrant parent and more than half speak a language other than English at home.
"California over the last decade has gotten farther and farther behind as other states have embraced early childhood education much more vigorously," Stipek adds.
Says Ignatius: "The way I look at our early childhood educators, childcare providers and preschool teachers is that they are the brain architects of our kids. They are the ones ensuring that children are developing strong relationships and bonds and attachments so that they feel secure – all the things necessary for children’s development. To pay them so little that they can qualify for public benefits themselves is a shame." Studies show nearly 60 percent of the state’s childcare workers receive some form of public assistance.
"And then parents themselves can’t afford to pay any more than they are," adds Ignatius, who served on the recent California Assembly Blue Ribbon Commission on Early Childhood Education with McCarty. While families making 70 percent of the state median income are eligible for subsidized childcare, only a fraction actually receives it due to lack of space, the commission found. McCarty has likened the cost of quality preschool in the state to that of University of California tuition.
"We really need a government solution, a societal solution to address low wages and access to care," Ignatius says. That includes affordable childcare and preschool access that extends to parents’ work hours and covers children at all ages before they enter kindergarten, she says. "It has to be two generational – it has to work for the child and for the adult."
Newsom’s other early childhood proposals include expanding health screenings and home visits, increasing paid family leave from six weeks to six months, increasing CalWORKS grants for low-income parents and expanding full-day kindergarten.
"For several decades we have been talking. We have all the research. We know all the positive outcomes when you invest in (childcare and preschool). … The brain science is all there," Ignatius says. "Now it’s time to act and really put forth some bold proposals and identify revenues."
Janine DeFao is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent and editor of the Childcare & Preschool Finder.