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Preschool Providers Worry The Child Care System Is Crumbling And That Gov. Newsom's Next Budget Won't Fix It

A girl who is kindergarten-aged in a navy blue dress with a pink face mask sits at a desk in a school classroom. She picks up a plastic bag of red and yellow blocks. Several other students sit at desks around her and a teacher can be seen at the front.
The California Department of Education counted 100,851 students enrolled in transitional kindergarten in the 2019-2020 school year.
(Mariana Dale
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California is poised to take the next steps in funding a universal preschool program and a historic investment in child care for low-income families. Providers say the early learning and care system can’t enact Gov. Gavin Newsom’s promises without more support.

The Governor’s 2022 budget proposal includes:

  • $1 billion to enroll an estimated 56,000 more students in transitional kindergarten and add more educators to those classrooms.
  • $823.7 million to add 36,000 additional subsidized child care slots for low-income families.
  • $373 million to pay for rate increases to child care providers agreed to in last year’s contract with the child care providers union.
  • $309 million to support students with disabilities and dual language learners in the State Preschool Program.

“Child care is economic development,” Newsom said at Monday’s budget presentation. “You invest in the parents as you invest in kids.”
The spending plan aligns with the commitments Newsom made when first elected to improve the care and education of young children. It includes the state’s highest ever per-student spending in public schools, which stands to benefit the new 4-year-olds soon to be enrolled in transitional kindergarten.

Newsom is proposing to spend an estimated $20,855 per student. In comparison, New York had the highest per-student spending in the country in 2019 at $25,139.

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“I think the budget plan is focused on making systems work better,” said Charna Widby, chief government affairs officer at First 5 Los Angeles. “I think it's the right orientation and approach, but we have a lot of work to do in shaping this budget over the next six months to get there.”

The key there is systems.

There is no single early childhood system caring for kids until they’re old enough for school. Family support, neighborhood child care homes, standalone centers and public school programs throughout the state all play a critical role, but have often lacked the funding needed to serve everyone with a high quality program.

The pandemic made it even harder to operate because enrollment fell, or had to be decreased to meet public safety guidelines — and the cost of everything from the food kids eat to the cleaning supplies and protective gear needed to keep them safe went up.

“A lot of us have spent our life savings trying to stay afloat these two years,” said San Fernando Valley family child care provider Heidy Escobar-Rocha. “To see that not being addressed [in the budget], it sucks.”

A lot of us have spent our life savings trying to stay afloat these two years.
— San Fernando Valley family child care provider Heidy Escobar-Rocha

Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley, said California has to weigh the needs of existing child care providers while building the capacity to allow every 4-year-old in the state to enroll in the public school system.

“We still have hundreds of thousands of 3- and 4-year-olds, infants and toddlers in community-based organizations,” Fuller said. “And if you don't provide balanced support with the community-based subsector, then some of those places are going to go out of business.”

The budget now begins its journey through California’s legislature, which has until June 15 to pass the state spending plan. Newsom will present a budget revision in May with updated financial information.

Here are our takeaways from the budget proposal after talking to early childhood advocates, experts and providers:

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Transitional Kindergarten Expansion Will Be Slow And Steady

A free early education option for every 4-year-old in the state is a pillar of California’s Master Plan For Early Learning and Care and with federal plans for universal preschool stalled, the state is continuing to expand transitional kindergarten.

Newsom proposes $639.2 million to expand the program to students who turn 5 years old before February 2 of the current school year. Some school districts, including LAUSD, have already started enrolling younger kids.

One of the criticisms of transitional kindergarten is the comparatively high adult-to-child ratio when compared to other early childhood education programs. The budget proposal includes $383 million to add another educator to every transitional kindergarten class, working toward the goal of 1 adult for every 10 kids.

“He's delivering on his promise, maybe at a slightly slower rate of implementation given how big of an initiative this really is,” Fuller said.

He estimated when fully implemented the state will need 11,000 newly credentialed teachers and 20,000 new classroom assistants to staff transitional kindergarten classes.

“This is a huge expectation, a huge goal in terms of training teachers, at a time when we're already short of special ed teachers, we have a scarcity of bilingual education teachers,” Fuller said.

Even With More Child Care Slots, Systemic Problems Are A Barrier To Access

Tens of thousands of low-income California families eligible for subsidized child care can’t access it.

“We don't have enough providers, we do not have enough space and capacity to be able to absorb and implement a ramp up as quickly as we need to,” said First 5 Los Angeles’s Widby.

The budget proposes 36,000 new slots, building on the 110,000 funded last year. Non-profit organizations — resource and referral and alternative payment agencies — often link eligible families with providers that meet their needs.

Denyne Colburn, CEO of the California Alternative Payment Program Association, said neither last year's nor this year’s spending plans provide those agencies with the funding needed to support these families.

“It sounds good, all of these slots you're providing, but they're not real if you can't enroll the families and if the families can't find a provider,” Colburn said.

On top of that, California has lost child care slots since 2014 with family child care centers accounting for most of the closures.

Los Angeles’s child care employment levels have yet to reach pre-pandemic levels.

Unionized Child Care Providers Are Still Waiting For Health Care, Higher Wages

The more than 40,000 family child care providers who serve low-income families through the subsidized child care program unionized and last year negotiated for 15% raises in their first labor contract with the state.

That deal also created working groups to discuss how the state can revamp how providers are paid and offer new benefits including health care and retirement. The proposed budget mentions those groups, but doesn’t allocate any funding toward accomplishing their goals.

“We've been negotiating for the past six months and we are going to continue to negotiate,” said provider Escobar-Rocha. “We shouldn't have to wait.”

Child Care Providers United reports 20% of its members are uninsured and more than half can’t afford basic health care costs.

Low-Income Families With Young Kids Could Get More Support

Low-income Californians are often eligible to receive thousands of dollars every year by filing their taxes, including through a credit specifically for families with young kids.

In 2020, 420,000 families with at least one child under 5 years old claimed the Young Child Tax Credit which is often worth $1,000.

Newsom would like to expand the Young Child Tax Credit to include households with no earned income and adjust the credit for inflation. Currently, families need to have made at least a dollar, qualifying them for the Earned Income Tax Credit.

The budget proposal also aims to increase the aid payments families receive through CalWORKS and reduce Medi-CAL premiums for about 500,000 pregnant women, children and disabled working adults.

What questions do you have about early childhood education and development? What do you want to know about kids ages 0-5 and those who care for them in Southern California?
Decades of research indicates early childhood education significantly boosts children’s readiness to learn. Mariana Dale wants families, caregivers and educators to have the information they need to help children 0-5 grow and thrive by identifying what’s working and what’s not in California’s early childhood system.

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