Andrea Ball

Andrea Ball

This is a year of unexpected opportunity to strengthen early childhood programs and policy in California. The new federal education law, Governor Jerry Brown’s surprising early education budget proposal and the continued commitment of the Legislature to early childhood programs together offer a unique chance for state policymakers and local educators to deepen support for early learning programs and address achievement gaps.

The Every Student Succeeds Act,  the title of the federal law, contains new recognition of the importance of early childhood education. There is new language encouraging the use of federal education funds at the local level to help children successfully transition from pre-kindergarten programs into elementary school. School districts will also have to address these transitions in federally required local plans. State agencies will have to outline how they will support local efforts in early childhood education. And for the first time, federal professional development funds will include preschool administrators and teachers, including those who work with pre-kindergarten dual-language children.

The governor proposes to allocate block grants to school districts to fund locally designed pre-kindergarten programs for 4- and 5-year-old children, targeted to children from low-income families. This is a sweeping policy shift that would in effect eliminate the state preschool program and transitional kindergarten. The proposal has raised questions and concerns from early childhood and K-12 educators. The stated goals of the proposal reflect the Brown administration’s continued commitment to the Local Control Funding Formula and to addressing the needs of low-income children through local decision-making via school district Local Control and Accountability Plans. However, this initial proposal lacks specifics on program quality standards, on how the state would support schools in efforts to meet these standards, and how they would be monitored.

A central unresolved issue is the qualifications for pre-kindergarten teachers and support for their professional learning. In our current system, teachers working in the state preschool program are not required to have a teaching credential or a bachelor’s degree, while teachers working in transitional kindergarten must be credentialed and have relevant experience, or at least 24 units of early childhood education. Professional learning opportunities for teachers in early learning programs remain inconsistent. Strengthening the preparation and professional learning for early childhood educators should be front and center in any effort to reimagine California’s early learning system.

The budget proposal provides no additional funding for the new block grants, nor does it include a targeted level of funding for each local education agency, in contrast to the Local Control Funding Formula, which provides target levels for school districts and additional grants based on specific student demographics – low-income students, English language learners and foster youth.

There is compelling evidence that investment in quality pre-kindergarten programs makes a meaningful difference in children’s success in school and beyond, especially for children from disadvantaged families. Quality in and access to early childhood programs reduce the likelihood of later involvement in the criminal justice system and social welfare programs, and increases the prospect of economic success in adulthood. Research in California demonstrates the effectiveness of the state’s transitional kindergarten program, a groundbreaking effort to prepare 4- and 5-year-old children for success in kindergarten and beyond. A recently published study by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) found that children who attended transitional programs were significantly ahead of their peers in language, literacy, math and “executive function” (i.e., managing oneself to accomplish tasks and goals).

As educators begin planning for their next Local Control and Accountability Plans and budgets, they can use the federal law and funding as well as local funds to craft programs that support quality and coherence in pre-kindergarten through elementary grades. They can learn from efforts underway in districts such as Fresno and Long Beach that bring together preschool educators, administrators and community organizations, and from the nascent work of the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, on the essential value of early learning programs.

Legislative action is also key. In 2013 the governor and the Legislature took courageous action in enacting the new funding formula, based on equity, transparency and greater local decision-making. In the intervening years, the Legislature has maintained a focus on rebuilding early learning through investments in the state preschool program and a commitment to provide access to all eligible low-income 4-year-olds.

If we are truly to address gaps in achievement and opportunity, state leaders must take decisive and courageous action during this year’s budget process to address quality in pre-kindergarten and early education. The state needs to provide funding for evidence-based training and ongoing professional learning for pre-kindergarten educators and administrators, and for programs to support transitions for children from pre-kindergarten to elementary school with a view to breaking down silos between early childhood programs and the K-12 system.

The new federal education law and the governor’s proposal set the stage. Now it’s up to California policymakers to shape proposals that will ensure all children have the early experiences they need to be successful learners.

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Andrea Ball is Senior Policy Advisor for Early Edge California.

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