Photo: Zaidee Stavely/EdSource
Toddlers play at an Early Learning Center in Fresno Unified.

As California struggles to meet child care and preschool needs, some communities are asking voters to help fill the gap.

Alameda County and the cities of Sacramento and Emeryville all have measures on the ballot next month that would either generate or set aside funds for child care and other children’s services, such as health care, after-school programs and youth employment services.

“Probably the biggest barrier to doing right by our kids and making sure they get what they need is not having the resources to do it,” said Margaret Brodkin, director of Funding the Next Generation, an advocacy organization that offers guidance for local communities seeking to fund children’s services.“The state has an important role to play in this, but it certainly can’t do everything. These measures give local communities the authority to figure out how best to use resources.”

The measures attempt to help some of the hundreds of thousands of children from low-income families in California who never receive subsidies for child care or preschool even though they are eligible. Research shows they are less prepared for kindergarten than their peers who attended preschool.

Alameda County advocates are trying again to raise the sales tax to pay for more child care and preschool services, after narrowly failing to pass a similar measure in 2018.

Alameda County’s Measure C would add a half percent sales tax on local purchases — 50 cents for every $100 — to raise an estimated $30 million a year for pediatric health care and an estimated $120 million a year for improving child care workers’ wages and increasing the number of subsidized child care and preschool slots for low-income children.

“We know there is a huge gap between the need and the actual slots available currently. It would really be helpful to close the gap,” said Erika Kuempel, a spokeswoman for First 5 Alameda County, a county commission dedicated to helping families with children under 6 years old. The commission would administer the money if the measure passes.

First 5 Alameda County and the Alameda County Early Care and Education Program estimate that 4,000 to 5,000 more children would be able to enroll in subsidized child care or preschool if the measure passes, and 12,000 children who currently receive preschool subsidies from the state would receive additional money to cover more of their enrollment costs. An estimated 3,300 teachers and assistant teachers would receive classes, coaching and higher compensation.

There are an estimated 10,000 3- and 4-year-olds and 22,500 0-2 year-olds in Alameda County who are eligible for subsidized care but not enrolled.

Local tax measures to fund early education programs are not very common in California because they have historically required a two-thirds vote to pass. A measure similar to Measure C narrowly lost in June 2018 in Alameda County, with 66.20 percent of the vote, falling short of the required vote by less than half of a percentage point.

It’s not clear whether this initiative needs a simple majority or two-thirds. If the initiative does not get a full two-thirds vote, though, it may be challenged in court.

A California law requires a two-thirds vote for local governments to raise taxes for a specific purpose, like child care. However, San Francisco and Oakland officials have argued in court that only a simple majority is needed if a tax measure was put on the ballot by voters, and not by the local government. A San Francisco Superior Court judge agreed that citizen initiatives only require a simple majority vote, while judges in Fresno and Alameda counties have both said they need a 2/3 majority. All the cases have been appealed.

Clarissa Doutherd, director of Parent Voices Oakland, a parent-led advocacy group that is one of the organizations backing Measure C, said the campaign is aiming for a two-thirds vote. Doutherd believes that is possible, since the 2018 vote was so close.

“There’s much more awareness around the struggles that working parents have, living in a high-cost county, trying to afford rent. And child care affordability is something that we see presidential candidates talking about. It’s something that we see being covered almost weekly at this point in the newspapers,” Doutherd said.

Sacramento-based children’s advocates are avoiding this issue altogether by asking voters to support a measure that would establish dedicated funding. Measure G would not raise the sales tax, but instead would dedicate 2.5 percent of the city’s unrestricted revenues for a “children’s fund” for 12 years, from 2021 to 2033. The fund would pay for early childhood education programs, summer and after-school programs, job training and alcohol and drug use prevention, among other services for children and young people under 25 years old, prioritizing those “most impacted by poverty, trauma and violence.”

Because the measure would not raise taxes, it would only require a simple majority of votes to pass.

“Cities spend a lot more once kids are in trouble with law enforcement, in juvenile justice, or homeless. Clearly we need to have a prevention strategy if we want to change the direction of what’s going on in our city,” said Jim Keddy, a spokesman for Sacramento Kids First, a coalition of teachers, pediatricians, business owners and nonprofit organizations backing Measure G. The measure also has the support of Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento.

However, Measure G has split the Sacramento City Council and stirred up considerable opposition, including from the current mayor and two retired mayors, who argue that the measure could force the city to stop funding other programs.

 “It could jeopardize other important priorities like our plan for a $100-million affordable housing trust fund,” wrote Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg in an email. “I’m proposing an alternative, to be placed on the ballot in November, that will dedicate 20 percent of the city’s revenue growth to youth and protect youth programs from disproportionate cuts in bad economic times.”

At least one other local measure for children’s services is on the ballot in California this March. In the small city of Emeryville, tucked between Berkeley and Oakland in the San Francisco Bay Area, voters will also consider whether to add a quarter percent sales tax to local purchases. Measure F would raise an estimated $2 million every year to go toward both affordable child care and preschool and police, fire and emergency services.

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