Credit: Fermin Leal/EdSource
Preschool students at Land School in Westminster.

There is growing recognition that California in effect has three systems of education — one for children before they enter kindergarten, another serving children in the K-12 grades and one for higher education.

But in the eyes of many experts, policymakers and elected officials, the system serving the state’s youngest children is the most important in building a foundation for a student’s future success. It is also the most fragmented and least coordinated one.

“California’s system of early childhood programs encompasses a complex hodgepodge of public and private programs. These programs often are funded by and accountable to multiple uncoordinated agencies,” a January report from the Learning Policy Institute, a research and policy organization in Palo Alto, concluded.

Along the lines of what many other states have done, the report recommended that California establish a “state level governing body with the authority and expertise to coordinate all early childhood education programs.”

Those programs are intended to serve the state’s 2.5 million children between the ages of 0 and 5, but the challenge of coordinating them are enormous. They range from licensed family day care homes with small numbers of children to centers serving infants and toddlers to preschool programs run by private operators and school districts. In many cases, children are cared for informally by relatives or friends.

Some programs are overseen by the California Department of Education, some by the Department of Social Services and others by the Department of Developmental Services. First 5 California has also played an oversight function, but as tobacco revenues, its principal funding source, have declined, the organization is playing less of a coordinating role than it once did.

The challenge of coordinating the early education system could well become even more of an issue if California moves to expand early childhood programs. All four leading Democratic gubernatorial candidates say California should ensure access to preschool for all 4-year-olds, but they also suggested there is a need to expand services and programs to children from birth through age 3.

But given the decentralized nature of so many early education settings and programs would it even be feasible to bring them all under one bureaucratic roof, especially in a state the size of California?

Children’s advocates interviewed by EdSource believe not only that it is, but that it is essential that California move in that direction.

“Having a state level department could begin the work of creating a more rational and equitable system,” said Mark Friedman, CEO of the Thomas J. Long Foundation in Walnut Creek and former CEO of First 5 Alameda County.  “The goal would be to take the functions of disparate agencies and put them together in a synergistic way that benefits young children.”

Were it to do so, California would not have to look very far for ideas for how to design such a system. Three states — Washington, Georgia and Massachusetts — have established standalone state-level departments to oversee their early childhood programs.

Massachusetts has a Department of Early Education and Care, along with a Board of Early Education and Care. The state of Washington has a cabinet-level Department of Early Learning and Georgia has established a Department of Early Care and Learning. 

Many other states have coordinating early childhood programs embedded in other departments, typically in their state departments of education.

Along those lines, Maryland has a Division of Early Childhood Development. Michigan has an Office of Great Start. North Carolina has established a Division of Child Development and Early Education, while Pennsylvania has an Office of Child Care and Early Learning.

The rationale for doing so is clear, said Rolf Grafwallner, the director for early childhood initiatives at the Council of Chief State School Officers. Establishing state-level early childhood education departments or divisions “elevates the importance of child care, contributes to streamlining of funding and programs, avoids duplication of services and having programs work at cross purposes to each other,” said Grafwallner, who formerly ran Maryland’s Division of Early Childhood Development.

Steven Hicks, the Maryland assistant state superintendent who currently runs the division, said that one advantage of having coordinated oversight over a range of children’s services is that children spend time in multiple programs at different times in their lives. Having one department overseeing them makes it more likely these programs would be aligned with each other and makes it easier to track a child’s progress through each of them.

“The more you have under one roof the easier it is to align and coordinate what you are doing,” he said.

Instead of just creating another bureaucracy, he said, just the opposite happens. “You get a certain amount of efficiencies (by having centralization of some kind). Instead of multiple bureaucracies you have one bureaucracy.”

Integrating early childhood services, Hicks said, also helps overcome the tensions between more traditional purposes of early childhood programs and the more recent recognition of the need to promote social and emotional learning at an early age.

“By having these programs under one agency, you have a concise, clear message,” Hicks said. “It is not one camp against another — academic vs. social emotional learning — but a recognition that children need both.”

In Georgia, which became the first state to offer universal preschool to all 4-year-olds in 1995, the Department of Early Care and Learning was established in 2004.

With a total budget of $803 million, the department was formed by combining multiple state agencies, including the Office of School Readiness, parts of the Department of Human Services and the Georgia Childcare Council.

Erica Fener Sitkoff, executive director of Voices for Georgia’s Children, a leading advocacy organization, said the department has been “essential” in advancing early childhood services in the state, in part because its director is a member of the governor’s cabinet. “Anytime you have a direct line to the governor, he is better able to champion early childhood issues, and positive change happens,” she said.

She said Georgia’s department is a “very high functioning agency” that minimizes bureaucracy “because the early childhood piece is not layered under a bunch of other services … It is its own entity so it has the resources and gets the attention needed to lift up and improve our early care system.”

In the state of Washington, the Department of Early Learning has played a major role in advancing several key programs since it was founded a decade ago.

For example, the department has led an expansion of home visiting programs, which provide assistance to parents who are teens, low-income or facing other challenges raising newborns and young children. For the first time, home visits will soon be available in every county in the state. Frank Ordway, the department’s assistant director for communications, said the program “wouldn’t have been in remotely the shape it is now if the department had not shepherded it through.”

Another notable program is the state’s Early Childhood Assistance Program, which provides a range of services to low-income children and families. The department also was key to the passage of the 2015 Early Start Act, which among other things requires every licensed child care program to participate in the state’s quality rating system to receive state funds, and provides funds to train early childhood teachers.

Through initiatives like these, the department has been able to maintain a “laser like focus” on the needs of very young children, Ordway said. “We’ve been able to reframe the notion of early childhood programs as simply providing glorified babysitting to the view that these are some of the most critical years of a child’s life.”

Tom Weber, the commissioner of Massachusetts’ Department of Early Education and Care, cautioned that the complexity of the early childhood system means reforming it does not lend itself to simple solutions. For one thing, he said, “there is healthy debate about where to appropriately position early education, and whether it should it be co-located in the education system, or co-located in the health and human services system.” Nor does consolidating services solve all the problems in early childhood education. But the advantages, Weber Said, far outweigh the benefits of “keeping these services separated under multiple jurisdictions.”

In many states, the governor takes the lead in pushing for a reorganization. Hanna Melnick, a research and policy associate at the Learning Policy Institute, and a co-author of the institute’s report on early education, said the upcoming elections in California provide opportunities for the next governor.  A reorganization could come in the form of a separate department or division, or an interagency council that brings together different state agencies. “The governor  has the power to give more authority to people in charge of children’s issues, and that is desperately needed in California,” she said.

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