Moira Kenney, Executive Director of First 5.

As state budget conversations heat up at the Capitol, early childhood advocates are more united than ever before. We are speaking with one voice to make quality preschool programs and increased funding for underpaid early care providers a shared priority for our elected officials.

On early learning, the path forward is clear: invest in quality early learning for all California’s young children and societal benefits cascade. More children will read at grade level, fewer teens will drop out, and our children will be on the path to a thriving future.

But education is only one piece of the complex formula of care and services necessary for children to enter kindergarten ready to learn.

For children to truly experience support, pediatricians should be equipped to offer parenting advice when a child is in for a medical exam; family child care providers should know where to refer a child for behavioral screening and supports; and home visits for young families should occur regularly, offering guidance on lactation, well-baby care, and maternal mental health.

In nearly 40 of California’s 58 counties, home visiting programs like Healthy Families America greet families before and after the baby arrives. Visits connect families to community resources and reduce the need for expensive in-office doctor’s visits. Over time, these programs help lower parental stress and reduce other factors that put a child at risk for abuse and neglect, and enhance both parent-child attachment and early childhood development and school readiness. Home visiting has been shown to save as much as $5.70 in additional public costs for every dollar invested.

Improving pediatric oral health has similar systemic benefits. Statewide, tooth decay is the number one reason for kindergarten absences, and untreated dental issues can trigger a cascade of health and family problems. Across the state, First 5s and other organizations and health providers have provided urgently needed oral care to thousands of children. Community-wide education means more families bring their children in for the all-important “first tooth, first birthday” visit.

Young children may be asthma patients, eager preschool students, members of a family struggling with poverty, or often all three at once. We need an integrated system of care that can meet the full spectrum of a child’s needs.

To realize California voters’ vision, existing funds, policy conversations and state investments must be better coordinated. That’s why we’re working with state leaders to identify ways to expand on the partnerships that First 5 has helped forge since it was established nearly two decades ago.  

We also need significantly greater state investment in early childhood. The need is simply too urgent. Fifty percent of California’s children zero to 5 years old live in poverty. Twenty-six percent of them live in “food insecure” households. California ranks 30th among states in infant and toddler developmental screenings. State-subsidized child care reaches only 10 percent of California’s infants.

On April 5, First 5 staff and commissioners from across California – representing all early childhood sectors – are converging in Sacramento to present the legislature with an agenda that places a priority on young children.

We’re joining our early learning partners in calling for increased investment in quality preschool, but our vision is more comprehensive. We want a system that supports both the mental health and economic needs of families. We want children at risk of developmental delay to have access to transformative early identification and intervention. We want to expand access to preventative and restorative oral health services. Above all, we want an integrated – and sustainable – system of care that ensures that California’s youngest children and their families thrive.

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Moira Kenney is the Executive Director of the First 5 Association of California, the network of California’s First 5s, which support the health, developmental, and educational needs of California’s youngest children in all 58 counties. 

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