Another step toward universal preschool in California?

December 9, 2020

Long a goal of early childhood advocates, universal preschool came a step closer to becoming reality this week.

Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, a veteran advocate for early education, and other legislators on Tuesday proposed a sweeping suite of bills to help reform the state’s early childhood system. The bills seek to expand transitional kindergarten to all 4-year-olds, make child care more affordable by creating a sliding scale for family fees, increase reimbursement rates for preschool teachers and bar expulsions and suspensions in preschool.

McCarty, who has championed universal preschool and other reforms for many years, stressed that this was an initial rollout and that more specifics regarding implementation and funding would follow over time.

“This education package aims to lift up working families and our kids throughout California. We all know that early education matters for kindergarten readiness, to make sure our kids are ready to thrive when they enter a public school system, and for moms trying to go to work or go to school themselves,” said McCarty, chairman of the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Education Finance, during a press conference on the legislation. “We see it crystal clear during COVID-19 how much early education and child care impacts our economy.”

The bill package, which helps pave the way for Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recently released 10-year early education roadmap, the Master Plan for Early Learning and Care, was lauded by those concerned with early childhood education and care in California, a state with almost 3 million children under 5.

“It’s clear that our youngest children need more support now than ever,” said Patricia Lozano, executive director of Early Edge California, an education nonprofit that is co-sponsoring part of the legislation. “We want to be able to serve all the kids who need these services the most.”

These wide-ranging reform initiatives come in response to longstanding concerns that of all the systems of education, early education has been the most inconsistent and inaccessible to many of California’s low-income children, experts say. It also speaks to a growing understanding that the early years are critical to brain development, forming the foundation for lifelong academic and career success.

“There’s no doubt that early childhood education providers and families statewide need immediate help, so it’s critical that California takes steps both to stabilize the fragile field, expand services for families,” said Ted Lempert, president of Children Now, “and discontinue policies that perpetuate and exacerbate inequities and leave us behind the nation as other states continue to move ahead with real supports for young children.”

More specifics are called for, childhood advocates say, to determine how much impact the policies will have.

“The Devil will be in the details,” agreed Khieem Jackson, founder of Black Men for Educational Equity, an advocacy group. “However, we are pleased to see Assembly members McCarty and Rubio’s commitment to bolstering equity by working to eliminate bias and inequitable practices within the early learning and care system. These policy proposals have the potential to benefit millions of children.”

Assembly Bill 22, the expansion of transitional kindergarten to all 4-year-olds, which legislators say would largely be paid for through Proposition 98, which provides funding for K-12 education, is at the core of this bill package. However, some advocates maintain that there is not enough clarity yet on how the programs will be paid for.

“We really appreciate the leadership the Legislature is taking on early care and education — many important issues are tackled in this package of bills,” Lempert said. “But we need to ensure that we’re pairing these key ideas with additional, new investments, not investments that come at the expense of other kids’ services. If kids are truly prioritized in California, this state can afford both significant additional investments in early ed and K-12.”

Expanding transitional kindergarten, which is designed to be a bridge between preschool and kindergarten, will ensure that there is an even playing field for all children, advocates say, as they enter kindergarten.

“It makes no sense that only one quarter of 4-year-olds are provided access to an additional year of kindergarten,” said Kerry Woods, chair of the political action group for the California School Employees Association. “Expanding transitional kindergarten to all California’s 4-year-olds is the right thing to do, and we should do it now, as study after study shows that providing quality early education for our children prepares them for future educational and personal success.”

Currently, transitional kindergarten is only available to 4-year-olds who turn 5 between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2, a short window.

“We know that transitional kindergarten works. It’s been around for 10 years now in California and research shows that it makes a tremendous difference for all students, of all income levels who have been through transitional kindergarten,” said McCarty. “We’ve had essentially a pilot project for 10 years.”

Another critical part of the package is Assembly Bill 92, which would create a sliding scale for family fees for child care. The annual cost of care for an infant in a licensed child care center in California last year was more than $15,000, for instance, according to the California Budget and Policy Center.

“Any legislation that will boost resources for families with low incomes is a step in the right direction,” said Kristin Schumacher, senior policy analyst for the California Budget and Policy Center, a nonprofit research organization. “Many of these families have very low incomes, and any relief in the way of fees will allow them to direct their resources to other high-ticket items like rent, transportation, or even supplies for the children like formula and diapers.”

The steep cost of child care has only worsened during the pandemic, as almost 6,000 family child care providers have been forced to close their doors this year, according to Child Care Providers United, a union coalition.

“This would ease the burden on families,” said Assemblywoman Eloise Reyes, D-San Bernardino. “On a limited income, many families struggle to afford the cost of child care while providing for basic needs such as food and housing.”

Raising wages for preschool teachers and other caregivers is also a key part of addressing the inequities of the child care system, experts say.

“The fact is our caregivers and teachers are woefully underpaid,” said Scott Moore, head of Kidango, a nonprofit organization that runs many Bay Area child care centers. “We need to raise rates so that it is possible to earn a professional wage.”

Other elements of the reform package include Senate Bill 50, sponsored by Sen. Monique Limon, D-Santa Barbara, which intends to create a more streamlined framework of programs for children from birth to age 6, and a bill that would make kindergarten mandatory.

Another key bill would bar expulsions and suspensions in subsidized early learning programs. Children in preschool programs are expelled at a much higher rate than students in K-12, said Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio, D-Baldwin Park, a former school teacher, who is co-sponsoring the bill.

Equity is at the core of the issue. African American children, for example, are prone to receive harsher discipline than other students who display the same behavior, studies show.

“Children of color, of course, are disproportionately affected,” Rubio said. “We must address all of these injustices. If children are not getting the support they need, the programs are futile.”

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