Credit: Betty Márquez Rosales/EdSource
Heliotrope Avenue elementary students returned to their classrooms in L.A. Unified on April 13, 2021.

In a virtual classroom visit last month, I unexpectedly saw a toddler amongst the nine-year-old faces.

One of the fourth graders, with his headphones and video on, was trying his best to actively listen while bouncing his younger sibling on his knee. While such caregiving responsibilities aren’t necessarily new for our students, the virtual learning environment has brought these experiences to the fore, highlighting the critical nature of quality care and education for our youngest children.

The pandemic has proved in the starkest of terms the importance of childcare and preschool programs. Working parents have overnight found their childcare upended as capacity and hours shrunk or facilities closed all together. Nationally, nearly three million women have dropped out of the workforce during the pandemic, many to care for their children.

As the mother of a toddler and a baby who was born during the pandemic, and a leader in the nation’s second largest school district, I know these challenges firsthand; while I am privileged enough to have access to relatively stable care, my colleagues and constituents have seen me juggle caring for my two young children while working as a school board member.

The reality is that access to high-quality, affordable early childhood programs in Los Angeles was woefully inadequate prior to the pandemic — Covid-19 highlighted those gaps in starker relief as more families faced impossible choices.

The pandemic has brought to bear the systemic inequities faced by the communities we serve on a daily basis. Working-class families are experiencing exacerbated food insecurity, housing insecurity, job and income loss, high rates of illness and death from Covid, and a child care crisis.

As we recover from this pandemic, we cannot simply return to the normal of March 2020 — true recovery requires addressing the inequitable conditions that allowed the pandemic to be so disproportionately devastating to certain communities.

Now is the time to invest in effective strategies that promise transformative impacts, especially for our most vulnerable families. Now is the time for universal high-quality preschool in Los Angeles.

Last week, the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education voted to provide universal preschool for every child in Los Angeles by 2024, leveraging our school-based programs and working hand-in-hand with nonprofit and home providers. More immediately, the effort will leverage pandemic relief funds to expand its current early childhood education offerings to serve even more of its earliest learners next fall. In California alone, $26.4 billion dollars have been allocated to schools for the effort.

As school districts are receiving unprecedented funding from the federal government to reopen schools and support students in the long-term recovery from the pandemic, expanding preschool offerings for our highest-needs children is one of the best investments we can make.

Universal high-quality preschool for three- and four-year-olds is a proven way to reduce the opportunity gap,  lift families out of poverty, and stimulate the local economy. In California alone, over 8,500 licensed childcare providers have had to close their doors — leaving tens of thousands of children and their families to scramble for childcare, if they could afford it. Nationally, one-in-four families spend ten percent of their income on childcare, whereas poor families are likely to spend almost one-fifth of their income on childcare, more than double the national average.

For far too long, early education programs have been viewed as separate efforts as opposed to an integral part of a robust public education system. Fortunately, recent pushes for expanded early education present an opportunity to correct this. Governor Gavin Newsom has announced additional investments in early childhood education in his Master Plan for Early Learning and Care.

At the federal level, President Joe Biden has identified quality affordable child care as a critical piece of rebuilding and recovery as his recently announced infrastructure plan calls for $25B investment in a Child Care Growth and Innovation Fund.

As we begin to recover from the pandemic, we must resist the urge to shape our recovery efforts with outdated tools. Now, with the resources and the opportunity to envision real, equitable recovery and transformation, we must seize this opportunity to provide children with a jump start to their education through early education and families with stable and free or low-cost care they need to reenter the workforce.

In this moment, we owe it to our communities and children to get this right — universal preschool in Los Angeles would transform the educational experiences and life outcomes of generations to come. We can’t afford to wait any longer.

•••

Kelly Gonez is President of the Los Angeles Unified Board of Education and represents the communities of the East San Fernando Valley within the second largest school district in the country.

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