Influencers Opinion

To prepare children for school earlier, we have to take care of their families too

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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California Influencers this week answered the following the question: What specific steps can California take to prepare our children for school in the first years of their lives? Below are the Influencers’ answers in their entirety.

“I know firsthand the importance of preparing our youngest kids for school”

Connie Leyva - California State Senator (D-Chino)

As the mother of twin daughters, I know firsthand the importance of preparing our youngest kids for school since the greatest brain development happens during the first five years of life. It is critical that we continue to invest in programs that help young Californians get a strong start. From supporting parental leave to improving access to affordable quality child care for infants and toddlers, we can help set our children on the track to success. Specifically, for low-income families, it is important that we fund more child care slots and increase reimbursement rates for providers, as well as support all sectors of the industry.

We must also expand access to full-day programs and wrap-around services, as well as support services and linkages to services such as medical, dental, mental health and food and housing supports. It is also vital that we ensure workforce development opportunities for early educators and child care providers, many of whom are women of color. Beyond these efforts, we must always be mindful of inclusion and the needs of migrants, English learners and children with exceptional needs. After all, these formative years are so critical to expanding opportunities for the next generation of Californians.

“Education is the great equalizer”

Ling Ling Chang - California State Senator (R-Diamond Bar)

Education is the great equalizer when all kids have access to a great education. But one of the most stark and inequitable features of our education system is access to quality preschool. That’s why I co-authored AB 123, which expands preschool to those in need. Too many students start out behind and are constantly playing catch up.

It’s undeniable. Kids who have access to pre-k and t-k are better prepared. If we want to close the achievement gap and make California a leader in education, we need to make quality early education a priority.

Let’s expand eligibility for State pre-k programs, support early childhood education workers pursuing a baccalaureate degree, and make t-k programs more inclusive. This could level the playing field in a dramatic way.

Studies have shown that pre-k not only provides many socioeconomic benefits, but also increases kids’ chances of graduating high school and future success. Early education can be the first step in preventing poverty and giving people the ability to lift themselves up. Supporting quality programs will better prepare students, close the educational gap, and expand the middle class.

“Research shows that children who start behind stay behind”

Linda Darling-Hammond - President of the California State Board of Education

California has a kindergarten readiness gap: Although our students make as much academic progress in grades K-12 as similar students across the country, they start behind those in other states because many lack access to early childhood education. Only one-third of eligible children ages birth to 5 receive access to state-subsidized early childhood education, and almost half of California families with a 3- or 4-year-old (48 percent) cannot find any public or private preschool program with available slots. Research shows that children who start behind stay behind, widening achievement gaps and exacerbating college and career disparities. Conversely, a good early education leads to higher graduation rates and employment, which benefit everyone. The new state budget begins to address this issue by allocating over $300 million to expand state early education slots and $195 million to strengthen the preschool and childcare workforce. The budget also provides funding for a much-needed “master plan” on early childhood – a comprehensive roadmap for aligning and connecting services for California’s youngest residents. By thinking broadly about the needs of young children, we can build a better onramp to the school and life opportunities all children need to succeed.

“California can provide high-quality early childhood education opportunities”

Deborah Kong - Children, Families, and Communities Program Officer at The David and Lucile Packard Foundation

California can ensure our babies, toddlers, and preschoolers are healthy, ready for school, and on track to reach their full potential by aligning, improving, and fully funding systems and programs that serve them and their families. That starts with expanding paid family leave so that parents or caregivers can bond with their babies and provide child care in the earliest months of life. We can ensure children have access to quality comprehensive and culturally effective primary care, including the 14 well-child visits in the first five years of life recommended by pediatricians to track growth and development, prevent illness, and address questions or concerns. And if follow-up for health and developmental needs is required, we can ensure families are connected to the appropriate supports or intervention. California can provide high-quality early childhood education opportunities for our children and better support early childhood educators who play such a central key role in their learning and development.

Quality early learning investments must move to the top of our priority list

Ted Lempert - President of Children Now

There is an abundance of research on the positive effects of high-quality early learning on preparing all children for success in school, yet serious inequities in our early learning system remain. Despite the fanfare surrounding the recently approved state budget, quality early learning was not at the top of California’s priorities. If we’re serious about equal opportunity, then the Governor and Legislature should commit to ensuring that all kids have access to the level of quality child care and preschool programs that the highest income families enjoy. Specifically, our state leaders must 1) make early learning the first priority in next year’s budget, and in doing so significantly ramp up compensation for early learning educators and towards parity with K-12 educators; 2) develop quality metrics to ensure that our rich, mixed-delivery system does not mean a mix of quality, but rather high quality for all; 3) effectively implement the English Language Learner Roadmap, including a focus on young children; 4) negotiate with initiative proponents and place a single revenue measure on the 2020 ballot, with significant expenditures focused on early learning; and 5) place an education facilities bond on the 2020 ballot that includes child care and preschool.

“California’s access to early childhood education programs can be scarce and the cost out of reach”

Myrna Castrejon - President and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association

The science is overwhelming: exposing children from birth to five years old in a supportive and loving educational environment where they can learn and grow provides an important foundation to help significantly enhance their learning and life opportunities. Yet, California’s access to early childhood education programs can be scarce and the cost out of reach for many working families. Further complicating early childhood education policy is its complex funding model and the woefully inadequate pay for early childhood educators.

Transitional kindergarten has helped fill some of these gaps, but more support in earlier years is desperately needed. With declining K-12 enrollment across the state, opportunities to streamline the gaps between funding and staffing, and match programs and half-empty facilities could help better meet local neighborhood needs.

In education policy, we think in programmatic and funding silos with a variety of rules and restrictions. Instead, let’s look at the problems as families do – in terms of cost and their ability to access programs. Through this lens, and by working together to serve the needs of families in every community, we can address these issues comprehensively with solutions that will prepare our kids for school, help close the achievement gap and reduce poverty in the state.

We need to think children in all policies and act early

Kim Belshe - Executive Director of First 5 LA

State leaders and lawmakers need to think big and continue creating thoughtful, comprehensive approaches to support the health, safety and school readiness of our youngest Californians. We all need to rethink how we approach our state’s policies and priorities, and recognize that our children are implicated in each and every policy decision we make. But rather than focusing primarily on the emergencies, we owe our kids the respect to tend to their needs before they reach crisis proportions. Why do we wait for families to falter and fall into crisis rather than supporting those in need of help managing the challenges of parenting? Why do we invest in child removal services, but not prevention and early interventions, including proven strategies like home visiting for new parents? Shouldn’t we prioritize strengthening and prevention over crisis and remediation?

We are making progress in focusing proactively on children by boosting programs for quality early learning and early identification and interventions. It’s wonderful to see how quickly we have moved from baby steps to big strides thanks to the efforts of Governor Newsom and legislative leaders over the past several years.

Regardless if you are a parent, aunt, uncle or cousin, all of our futures will be defined by California’s kids and it’s time that we invest in their future because we all have a stake in helping children reach their full potential. How children do today will determine our collective future in this state. Let’s make it golden.

“The ultimate goal is for every child to enter first grade fully prepared”

Janet Napolitano - University of California President

The earlier we can prepare children for school, the better poised they will be for long-term academic — and life — success. We can advocate for more programs involving regular visits to young mothers, which provide them with guidance on infant nutrition and vocabulary-building, among other forms of practical assistance. Increased access to quality childcare and preschool, as well as free, all-day kindergarten, would also make a tremendous difference. The ultimate goal is for every child to enter first grade fully prepared and ready to learn.

“Without workforce-resilient workers, families will suffer”

Eloy Oakley - California Community Colleges Chancellor

Investments in early childhood education, quality childcare and a strong K-12 system are all important to California’s children. But there’s something even more important: upskilling workers as a means to improve the circumstances in which children are raised. Nothing is more critical to a child’s future than having a family that is meaningfully employed, skilled and that has access to quality and affordable public education. 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, are food and housing insecure or are underemployed. Good paying jobs, coupled with investments in upskilling opportunities for our most vulnerable workers, is the best recipe for preparing children to succeed. Without workforce-resilient workers, families will suffer – and so will California.

“California continues to face a teacher shortage”

Timothy White - California State University Chancellor

Teacher preparation is critical. California continues to face a teacher shortage, especially in the STEM subjects. In fact, according to a recent study by the Learning Policy Institute, the state needs an additional 33,000 math and science teachers over the next decade. We are dedicating additional resources and working hard to prepare a larger and more diverse pool of teachers to meet that shortfall.

I also believe that community-based collaboratives show great promise to increase educational attainment at a local level, as well as to align education programs with regional economic needs. These “cradle-to-career” partnerships bring together higher education institutions along with their K-12 partners, as well as local business and community organizations, with the goal of creating a well-educated workforce, thriving communities and vibrant economies.

Finally, I think it is important to remember the significant impact that parents’ educational attainment has on their children. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 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.”

“Poor education systems create poverty”

Mike Madrid - Principal at Grassroots Lab

California is faced with some of the greatest social and economic stratification anywhere in the country. We have both the largest income-inequality and educational attainment divides in the United States.

These are correlated. Poor education systems create poverty, and poverty adds to challenged educational systems. You can not fix one without addressing both.

This is best remedies by early learning initiatives that provide pathways to a better life by reaching our youngest students.

To accomplish this we must:

Invest more money in low-performing schools ONLY when that money is tied to greater teacher accountability, administrative transparency and better outcomes.

Ensure that students are the primary focus of spending, ensuring that local budget makers have the flexibility- and accountability - required to prioritize student performance outcomes as the central metric for spending decisions.

Invest in student meal programs, better health initiatives and improve coordination between counties and school districts in mental health, housing and social services because we can not expect hungry, sick and homeless children to learn.

In short we must move away from the broken belief that the solution to early learning is answered by solutions from the right or the left – that has not worked. We must invest more resources into our youngest students while also demanding more from our teachers and administrators.

“We must also concentrate on improving program quality”

Vernon Billy - CEO and Executive Director of California School Boards Association

California must increase access to public, early education programs for all children – and start by focusing those efforts on high-need students. Early childhood education offers one of society’s greatest returns on investment, resulting in $8 in savings for every $1 invested. So, the case for expanding access is clear, but we must also concentrate on improving program quality.

The National Institute for Early Education Research’s 2018 annual report found that California has increased its investment and enrollment in pre-K programs but falls below the national average for meeting minimum quality standards. In addition, many eligible children do not have a space in the program for which they qualify. The report showed that 53 percent of California 4-year-olds were not enrolled in a public pre-K program in 2018.

In addition to bolstering the State Preschool Program, California can increase its investment in transitional kindergarten by providing school districts with resources to offer or expand the service. Preschool, transitional kindergarten and other programs can help level the playing field among children in their early years. As such, a coherent state plan for the expansion of pre-K programs is critical to closing opportunity gaps and improving student outcomes.

“Investing in the first five years of a child’s life is investing in the future workforce of our state and economy”

Rosie Arroyo - Chair of the Board for Hispanas Organized for Political Equality

There is little question that the future of our great state is inextricably linked to the success of all children, youth and families. And for a state as economically and ethnically diverse as California, this means that our future is tied to how well we raise the educational attainment of poor, working and middle-class families with quality education – from birth to college. Investing in the first five years of a child’s life is investing in the future workforce of our state and economy. With nearly 60 percent of children 5 years old and under who are Dual Language Learners, 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. Building on recent investments in support of English Language Learners and early childhood education, the state can have systemwide change and lay the foundation for a birth to college system that provides pathways and educational opportunities for every child. Despite being one of the richest states, California has one of the highest poverty rates and widest wealth gaps in the nation. Tackling critical education reforms and making appropriate investments in the next generation is key to our future.

Early childhood needs education – and more

Cynara Lilly - Principal at RALLY Communications

The smart people at Harvard tell us that early experiences affect the development of brain architecture which in turn affects the health and learning of a kid over the course of their life. This is why other smart people looking at how to improve our education system are looking longterm and suggesting that the most important investment we can make is in early childhood education. Agree. This should be a priority rather than something constantly advocated for, debated or weighed at the legislative level. But in addition to expanding high quality pre-k to all, we must also be thinking about a family’s entire health. This means expanding the what we include in the vertical of ‘early childhood’ to be both education AND basic support like natal care, health care, access to healthy food and healthy environments. In plain English, think about 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. In South LA, United Parents and Students (UPAS) is starting to unite education advocacy and a whole community approach. Let’s make this the norm and expand it to the early years.

For your reference, the smart people at Harvard:

Kids are worth the investment

Christine Robertson - Executive Director of the San Luis Coastal Education Foundation

California can take one simple step: invest. A recent study by Harvard University economists concludes what many of us know from practical experience: kids are a really sound investment. Analyzing 133 government policies over 50 years, the research team concluded that over time, investments in childhood education and health programs often pay for themselves. 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. For lawmakers, these findings should mark a north star when haggling over budget and policy priorities.

Expanded access to preschool is an obvious example of a win-win investment opportunity. At a critical stage in their early development, quality preschool can jumpstart the academic success of young students, reduce the achievement gap, improve health outcomes, and boost lifelong earnings. The corresponding increase in childcare benefits also boosts parents’ overall economic productivity.

This is not just a matter of increasing spending. Policymakers must develop a double-bottom line investment mindset that rigorously evaluates social impact and measures long-term economic returns. When held to this standard, investments in kids come out on top.

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