Influencers Opinion

What can we do to prepare our children for school earlier?

Note to readers: Each week through November 2019, a selection of our 101 California Influencers answers a question that is critical to California’s future. Topics include education, healthcare, environment, housing and economic growth.

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If we really want to get serious about educating California’s schoolchildren, then we’re going to need to engage them long before their first day of school.

“California has a kindergarten readiness gap: Although our students make as much academic progress in grades (K through 12) as similar students across the country, they start behind those in other states because many lack access to early childhood education,” said State Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond. “Children who start behind stay behind, widening achievement gaps and exacerbating college and career disparities.”

A critical key to better outcomes is anticipating potential problems before they occur, said Kim Belshe, executive director for First 5 LA.

“Rather than focusing primarily on the emergencies, we owe our kids the respect to tend to their needs before they reach crisis proportions,” Belshe said. “Why do we wait for families to… fall into crisis rather than supporting those in need of help managing the challenges of parenting? Shouldn’t we prioritize strengthening and prevention over crisis and remediation?”

University of California President Janet Napolitano pointed to the long-term benefits of early engagement.

“The earlier we can prepare children for school, the better poised they will be for long-term academic – and life – success,” Napolitano said. “The ultimate goal is for every child to enter first grade fully prepared and ready to learn.”

But other Influencers said that increased funding is only half the battle.

“The case for expanding access is clear, but we must also concentrate on improving program quality,” said California School Boards Association President Vernon Billy. “California has increased its investment and enrollment in pre-K programs but (still) falls below the national average for meeting minimum quality standards.”

Republican consultant Mike Madrid recommended steps for most effectively using additional funding to improve program quality.

“Invest more money in low-performing schools (only) when that money is tied to greater teacher accountability, administrative transparency and better outcomes,” Madrid said. “We must invest more resources into our youngest students while also demanding more from our teachers and administrators.”

Rosie Arroyo, board chair for Hispanas Organized for Political Equality, argued that the state’s large population of dual language learners necessitated a heightened focus on bilingual education programs.

“California is uniquely positioned to lead the nation in advancing early education policies with high economic output by supporting bilingual education programs for our youngest learners,” said Arroyo, who is also a senior program officer for the California Community Foundation. “The state can… lay the foundation for a birth to college system that provides pathways and educational opportunities for every child.”

Several Influencers offered reminders that a child’s ability to learn greatly depends on their home environment.

“We must also be thinking about a family’s entire health. This means… basic support like natal care, health care, access to healthy food and healthy environments,” said Cynara Lilly of RALLY Communications. “In plain English, (it means) eliminating food deserts, stopping oil drilling near homes and neighborhoods and not making families pick between food on the table or going to the doctor.”

California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Oakley expanded on Lilly’s point, emphasizing the benefits of a family’s economic stability for their children’s educational opportunities.

“Families, whether they are single-parent households or multi-generational households, cannot give their children the support they need if they are living in fear of losing jobs (or) are food and housing insecure,” Oakley said. “Good paying jobs, coupled with investments in upskilling opportunities for our most vulnerable workers, is the best recipe for preparing children to succeed.”

California State University Chancellor Timothy White went a step further, stressing the long-term impacts of students’ educational success for their own children in the future.

“It is important to remember the significant impact that parents’ educational attainment has on their children,” said White, who pointed out that 85 percent of children whose parents attended college go on to pursue higher education themselves. “By helping more Californians – especially those from traditionally underrepresented populations – earn a college degree, not only do we elevate those graduates, we elevate their families and future generations as well.”

Former Republican legislative consultant Christine Robertson anticipated concerns about increased ongoing spending commitments for these programs from her former colleagues.

“For fiscal hawks keen to maximize the value of every taxpayer dollar, the research found that programs to expand opportunities for low-income students offer the best return on investment,” said Robertson, who is now the executive director for the San Luis Coastal Education Foundation. “For lawmakers, these findings should mark a north star when haggling over budget and policy priorities.”

Dan Schnur, a veteran analyst and longtime participant in California politics, is director of the California Influencers series for McClatchy.
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