California Wants to Fix Its Early Learning System. Here's How

Two children playing in a Santa Monica preschool classroom. (Priska Neely)

UPDATE, 12 p.m.

Move over, Mueller Report, there's another hefty, highly-anticipated document in town.

OK, this one isn't quite as highly-anticipated, but it could have a big implications for the lives of the roughly three million California kids, ages five and under, in addition to their families, caregivers and educators.

It took two years, eight public hearings, over 70 meetings and four focus groups, but California finally has a new plan to improve care and education for its kids.

The Assembly Blue Ribbon Commission on Early Childhood Education released its final report today — a 108-page document with recommendations for making care and education in the first five years more accessible, affordable, and financially viable for educators working in the field.

"The single program that's closest to my heart and what I believe is the best tool for lifting families out of poverty is early childhood education," Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, who formed the commission, said at a press conference Monday.

Policymakers see investments in early childhood education as way to reduce school readiness gaps and child poverty — and they see these investments as the key to building a stronger society down the line.

The need for these changes is great, especially here in Los Angeles. While 71% of 4-year-olds are enrolled in a licensed center or school setting for a least half of the day, access to those programs varies widely and many parents are paying high prices out-of-pocket for preschool. While 51% of babies and toddlers in L.A. County are eligible for state-subsidized child care programs, only 6% of these children receive such care, according to a 2018 analysis by Advancement Project California.

Across the state, preschool funding and enrollment are up, but a new report finds the state below the national average when it comes to quality.

The early childhood system is often called complicated and chaotic because of the maze of funding streams programs receive, inconsistencies in expectations for teachers, waitlists, etc.

The commissioners behind this report came from school districts, parent groups, home daycares, research groups, even the business and philanthropy sectors. All of them had a goal of producing a document that could serve as blueprint for the legislature, as they develop policies to make the system more coherent.

"We have created urgency to strengthen our early care and education system and we want to make sure that children don't just grow, but children have an opportunity to thrive," Tonia McMillian, a commissioner who runs a home daycare in Bellflower said at the press conference. "We have shown what a difference it makes when family child care providers have a seat at the table."

There are more than a dozen early childhood-related bills making their way through the senate and assembly this term.

Consequently, this is a really long report (novella-length to be exact). But fear not, we read it so you don't have to.

Here are some highlights:

ACCESS BIRTH TO FIVE

The end goal laid out in the accessibility section is to dramatically increase access to education and care, so that no family is paying more than the federal guidelines for child care affordability, which is 7% of their total income. As of 2017, the state median income for a family is around $72,000.

Here are some of the commissioner's recommendations for making sure babies, toddlers and preschoolers in the state can get enrolled.

PARENT OUTREACH

One of the guiding principles of the commission was to keep parents at the center of policy decisions. "It was so powerful — someone finally asking us how we think the system should change," said Yenni Rivera, a parent from South L.A., said at the press conference.

Here are some of the recommendations that came out of four focus groups held with parents up and down the state.

WORKFORCE

In order to increase the accessibility of programs, policymakers have to consider wages and benefits for the people doing the work. The Blue Ribbon Commission was focused on the principle that the early childhood workforce should be celebrated as brain builders, and not viewed as babysitters. This means wrestling with the conundrum of increasing both qualifications and wages for educators and child care providers.

FINANCING

Now...how to pay for all of this? Governor Gavin Newsom has proposed $1.8 billion in early childhood funding, and the commission has some thoughts on how funds should be applied. Here are some highlights:

So what happens to all of these recommendations now that they're written in stone (by that, we mean digitally archived via PDF)?

California's early childhood system has been labeled chaotic for decades. A previous task force released a similar document 30 years ago, and very little came of it. But with a governor who is passionate about early childhood, a strong economy, and advocates planted throughout the administration and legislature, there's hope that these recommendations could actually spur change.

"When and if a recession hits and the budget is not in good a place as it is now, early childhood education will certainly have a seat at the table," Rendon told LAist.

Explore the full report (and/or the 18-page summary because who's counting?) here:

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A version of this story also ran on Take Two. Listen here.

UPDATES:

April 29, 2019: This article was updated to include additional information from the report and quotes from a Monday morning press conference.