California’s Master Plan for Early Learning and Care may seem at first glance like an overly forward-looking plan in this time of urgent need. But the plan is a template for a better life, not only for our youngest children, whose futures hinge on their access to quality early learning and care, but for women — working mothers and the early childhood workforce, almost all women, disproportionately women of color.
The plan was unfurled during a tidal wave of Covid-19, when looming shelter-in-place orders threaten to shut down even more of the already devastated child care system and force even more women — who continue to shoulder the brunt of child care — to leave the workforce to care for their children.
Even before the pandemic, our early child care and education system was stretched to the breaking point, with salaries on par with fast-food workers — so low that nearly 60% of educators and caregivers relied on public assistance, like food stamps, to survive.
But now with the crisis well advanced, more harrowing data is emerging daily, painting a picture of an industry in free fall. Based on research in progress, to be officially released in early 2021, UC Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE) projects the permanent closure of upwards of 3,500 family child care homes and hundreds of child care centers in California since the pandemic started, representing the loss of thousands of jobs and close to 85,000 child care spaces.
Programs that have managed to hang on are serving fewer children but incurring more costs due to health precautions. A study completed by the CSCCE in July 2020 found that 34% of family child care operators have taken on personal credit card debt to meet business expenses.
For working women as a whole, the picture is also bleak.
In September, an eye-popping 865,000 women left the U.S. workforce — four times more than men. And in California, women of color have been hit especially hard. During the first three months of the pandemic-induced downturn, employment for Black and Latinx women fell by over 20% — more than three times the decline in employment for white men.
What we have is a tale of two workforces, joined at the hip, both marginalized by societal forces exposed and magnified by the pandemic, both pivotal to the well-being of our youngest, our economy and all of us.
The Master Plan’s vision is exactly what California needs to ensure that we build back our state’s child care system stronger than before, and that we never find ourselves in this position again. It opens a door to women being able to stay in their jobs, feed their families and realize their career potential — and of early childhood educators prepared, compensated and recognized as the pillars of society they are.
With a powerful commitment to women and children, informed by evidence, the plan calls, among other things, for California to:
- Build a skills-based licensure and workforce development system.
- Enact funding reforms to ensure that the child care workforce is justly compensated.
- Implement data sharing and coordination to advance equity, promote accountability and measure progress.
California must center women in our economic recovery, particularly women of color. A well-supported child care and education system, as laid out by the Master Plan, is key not only for women themselves but because we know that when women thrive, so do their communities and families, including our very youngest.
And clearly our youngest children also benefit tremendously from early education itself.
Multiple studies show that quality early childhood education and care closes the achievement gap, decreases grade retention and placement in special education, improves health outcomes and enhances later school and career success — hence the 13% per year return on investment.
Of course high quality means children having regular access to skilled and well-compensated professionals who are paid wages commensurate with the enormous scope of their work.
As a longtime early childhood philanthropist, I’m proud of California’s Master Plan and committed to working to make it successful, but I know that without significant new public support, its vision cannot be realized. It has been criticized for being short on details as to where public support will come from, as well as a lack of urgency about the current hemorrhaging of early childhood programming and unsustainable working conditions for early childhood educators and caregivers.
It’s obvious that transforming California’s early childhood system requires substantial funding from the state and federal governments, as well as partnerships with the business community and philanthropy. Considering the enormity of the suffering of our youngest and most vulnerable today, we’re also counting on the Newsom administration to make immediate down payments.
It’s really time we gave women and young children their due. The first words in the plan’s introduction are: “Children are born ready to learn.”
And women deserve the power to earn.
Liz Simons is chair of the board of the Heising-Simons Foundation, a family foundation working to advance sustainable solutions in climate and clean energy, enable groundbreaking research in science, enhance the education of our youngest learners and support human rights for all people.
EdSource receives funding from over a dozen foundations, including the Heising-Simons Foundation. Editorial decisions and content, however, remain under the sole control of EdSource.
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