For the first time, a California governor has created a position in his office focused on early education. Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed Giannina Pérez as his Senior Policy Advisor for Early Childhood. Peréz previously worked for Early Edge California and Children Now, both well-known children’s advocacy organizations. As an advocate, she worked to expand training for preschool teachers and child care providers to better support children who speak languages other than English at home. She also has experience in the state Legislature, having worked for former state Sen. Hilda Solis and Assemblywoman Cindy Montañez. She has a master’s degree from UCLA’s School of Public Affairs.
Pérez spoke with EdSource recently about her new job and ideas regarding early childhood in California. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’re the first person to be named a senior policy advisor for early childhood to a California governor. How does it feel to be in this position?
I am extremely humbled and extremely excited and extremely nervous and extremely overjoyed.
This governor has made a point of making sure that there are diverse voices in his government. This is the first time that 50 percent of his staff are people of color; 60 percent are women. He has put in place many of us who are advocates or former advocates, because he wants to have folks who have a connection to communities. I need to hear from parents, Spanish-speaking parents and other parents where I’m the one putting the translator equipment on and listening to them. It is something that’s just in many of our DNA’s, to know what’s happening in the community and making sure that state level policies are ultimately being shaped by families’ lived experiences.
I have to say, as a child advocate for 12 years, I never thought that I would be in this position. I have had the fortune of working for elected officials in the Legislature, but I thought my role now was going to be in the advocacy world. But it’s not about me. I’m going to do all that I can because I’m representing my community, because my mom and dad immigrated from Peru for a reason, so that I can do my part to help make things better for more kids like my own kid. Every single kid deserves to have what the governor’s children have. He’s made that commitment. So I’m here to roll up my sleeves and help make that happen.
What is the first priority for Gov. Newsom’s early childhood agenda — preschool or 0-3?
The priority is all of it. So when the governor laid out his early childhood vision in the budget, what I think is most exciting is that he’s taking a holistic whole-child approach, but he’s also looking at a two-generation approach. I like to say it’s a whole-child, whole-family, whole-community approach, because ultimately it’s about direct investments in health and education for children, but also two-generation strategy investments in parents. We know so many families are struggling, so he’s looking at putting additional investment dollars in families’ pockets so that they can do better for their overall family.
In Gov. Newsom’s first budget proposal, he prioritized some issues that really haven’t been covered before, like funding for new buildings and training for providers and subsidized preschool for all low-income 4-year-olds. But he didn’t include funding to expand subsidies or vouchers for childcare for younger children. Are there plans now to do that?
In this first year, the marching orders that I have are to help pass this budget because it’s so monumental, because it’s laying out this vision. There is money to expand universal preschool for every single low-income 4-year old, and he’s made a down payment this year, and then for the next two years, so he’s talking about universal coverage for every eligible 4-year-old.
Then he’s also saying, let’s talk about the larger system. We know that, for subsidized child care, there are access needs, quality needs and affordability needs. His proposal is an investment in a master plan for early childhood education. That’s the blueprint — $10 million — to have these conversations. He really wants to step back before we start investing additional dollars into our system to say, how do we create a more coordinated comprehensive family-friendly system that we know will support children’s overall development?
Both the teacher strike in L.A. and the teacher strike in Oakland made it really clear that education from K to 12 is underfunded statewide. How can we move forward in a way where those two are not competing — early childhood and K-12?
This governor has said that California for all means that we’re all in this together. This is not going to be about my pot versus your pot. This is about what are we doing best for kids and families. What we know is that prenatal care matters, high-quality early childhood education matters, but of course strong transitions into a high-quality K through 12 system and ultimately an onramp into higher education or career and technical education need to happen, and then ultimately preparing for the workforce for the 21st century.
We are going to have to deal with some thornier conversations that ultimately have to do with financing and ultimately have to do with the values that California espouses to have. There are a lot of ups and downs and a lot of potholes that may come up, but together we have to just rise above that. We need to do better for all of our kids and all of our families. And each one of us has a role to play. There needs to be a conversation about the state’s investment, but also the private sector’s investment, as well as those families that can afford it, what is their investment?
Today you mentioned the importance of keeping in mind who the California children 0 to 5 years old are — half of them have at least one immigrant parent, more than half speak a language other than English at home. Are we doing enough for these children in the early years?
We will do more for them in their early years and that’s why I’m so excited and humbled to be put in this position. So many families who don’t speak another language in the home want to learn to speak another language. Let’s think about ways where we’re talking about multilingualism as the asset it is. I think the governor is very interested in creating programs that highlight and build off of the assets that so many of our young children are born with.
You’ve said, “I can early childhood any issue.” What does that mean?
That means I’m such a diehard early-childhood advocate that you throw out an issue and I’ll “early childhood” it. When someone says, for example, water issues, I’m like, “Water is crucial to the overall health of every person, but particularly because children’s brains are developing at the most rapid rate between birth to five, water is crucial to their overall health development.” Because they are some of the most vulnerable, because their brains are developing, because their environment actually changes their brains, we have to do all that we can for young children.