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California Approved Universal Pre-K And Higher Pay For Child Care Workers. But The Early Childhood System Still Needs Work

A classroom of students in early transitional kindergarten.
An early transitional kindergarten class at at Carver Elementary School in Long Beach.
(Mariana Dale/LAist)
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In the next year, California will invest billions of dollars in California’s young children, their families and early educators.

Lawmakers and advocates alike attribute the historic investments, based on policies in the works for years, to the bizarre alchemy of the pandemic’s spotlight on child care — and how hard it is to function without it— and the influx of federal COVID-19 relief funding.

“I hear this mantra that the child care system is broken ... and I frankly would argue that it’s never been broken, it's just been severely underfunded,” said Parent Voices California Statewide Organizer Mary Ignatius.

Now that there is new funding, lawmakers, early educators and advocates have to figure out which investments will best serve California families and the early education workforce.

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I hear this mantra that the child care system is broken ... and I frankly would argue that it’s never been broken, it's just been severely underfunded.
— Mary Ignatius, Parent Voices California statewide organizer

Here’s a look at a few of the accomplishments this legislative session and where advocates say the state still has work to do.

Universal Transitional Kindergarten

Right now, California schools are only required to enroll kids in transitional kindergarten, or TK, if their 5th birthday is between September and December of the current school year.

This year’s state budget includes $2.7 billion to open transitional kindergarten, or TK to every 4-year-old in the state by the 2025-2026 school year.

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Universal Pre-K, New Child Care Slots, Higher Provider Pay Promised By California Leaders

“This is a big win for middle class families that can't afford to pay tuition that equals UC Berkeley and UCLA for Pre-K,” said Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, a Democrat from Sacramento who’d pushed to expand the program for years. “And it will help, you know, low income families… that are on waiting lists.”

The legislation enacting the program says some families might be able to access additional child care services, but many of the details remain to be worked out.

“We can just call it wraparound services, but what does that really mean?” said Los Angeles mom Yenni Rivera. “What are the wraparound services? Mental health? What kind of mental health?”

She represents parents as part of the state’s Early Childhood Policy Council and urged families to speak up.

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“It could still be tweaked and this is the time to still be that voice,” Rivera said. The email to reach the Council is: ECPC@chhs.ca.gov.

Parents might want to ask about their school’s program sooner because some districts, including LAUSD, have already opened their TK programs to younger students.

Raises For Family Child Care Providers

CHILDCARE UNFILTERED -THEME 1 - JACKIE
South Los Angeles Family Child Care Provider Jackie was part of the committee negotiating the labor contract with the state.
(Jackie Jackson for LAist)

Union Child Care Providers United finalized their first contract with the state in June.

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The labor agreement promises raises of at least 15% for the more than 40,000 providers who care for children from low-income families through state subsidy programs. Wages vary based on location and a child’s age. For example, in L.A. County these providers, who are largely women of color, currently earn a maximum of $5.80 an hour to care for an infant full time.

The two-year contract also promises $40 million for training and education and $3 million to entice new providers to become licensed.

Providers are already calling for even more support like health care benefits and retirement plans.

“We don't stop here, I can do so much,” Van Nuys family child care provider Sylvia Hernandez told LAist in June. “I can give so much to my community and to my providers.”

200k New Child Care Slots For Low-Income Families

The budget adds more than 145,000 subsidized child care slots in the next two years, with the remainder in place by 2025-2026.

The investment will nearly double the number of children enrolled in publicly funded early education programs in the state.

“I've been at this for 16 years— I've never seen that level of expansion,” said Ignatius, adding that some families wait for subsidized child care for years. Only one in nine children eligible for these programs are able to actually access them, according to the non-profit California Budget and Policy Center.

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Ms. Carmen, a teacher in the infant class, at Young Horizons Child Development Center in Long Beach.
( (Chava Sanchez/LAist))

If you’re a parent and want to see if you might qualify for one of these slots, find out how to contact your local child care resource and referral agency.

California Will Identify Dual Language Learners In State Preschool

More than half of young kids in California speak a language other than English at home, “but we don’t know where they are, or who they are, or what language they speak,” said Early Edge California Executive Director Patricia Lozano.

Governor Gavin Newsom signed AB1363 on Oct. 5. It requires the state to develop a process to identify dual language learners in the State Preschool program. The screening is estimated to cost half-a-million dollars a year.

San Fernando Valley Assemblymember Luz Rivas authored the bill and said educators and policy makers can use this information to offer more targeted services and funding.

Rivas was a student in the California State Preschool Program in the ’70s. She remembered teachers punishing students for speaking Spanish, her first language.

Now research shows knowing multiple languages is a benefit.

“We’re going to be telling these young four year olds that speaking another language makes them more competitive in the future global workforce,” Rivas said. "I wish I would have had that encouragement when I was 4-years old.”

Not Every Early Childhood Bill Got The Green Light

Gov. Newsom vetoed two widely supported early childhood bills.

Senate Bill 50 would have opened the State Preschool program, which currently enrolls 3- and 4-year olds from low-income families, to kids as young as 18 months old and up to 5-years-old.

“This all should be based on community needs,” said Early Edge California’s Lozano. “Maybe you have more babies that you can serve, and you can use your state preschool funding for that.”

The bill was promoted as part of a package of early childhood legislation that included the expansion of transitional kindergarten.

Gov. Newsom wrote in his veto message the bill was premature and that he plans to propose changes to the State Preschool Program in next year’s budget.

“We don't always get, you know, what we're aiming for in one year,” said Sen. Monique Limón, a Santa Barbara Democrat who introduced the bill. “I absolutely plan on bringing back an expansion or reconsideration of how state preschool works in our state, for parents and for students.”

The system being on the brink of collapse during the pandemic is also a clear sign of how underfunded, fragmented and disorganized it was… prior to the pandemic.
— Ashley Williams, director of California policy and educator engagement programs at the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at UC Berkeley

Assembly Bill 865 is a little trickier to understand, but essentially would have made permanent some pandemic era changes to how the state pays providers through subsidized child care programs for low-income families.

At the root of the bill is a key difference between how the state pays providers and how the private market works. At a private child care, a parent often pays a flat monthly tuition rate which promises the provider a steady stream of funding. At child care homes that serve kids through subsidy programs, the state only pays the providers for the hours a child actually shows up. Providers can’t count on getting paid the same amount each week to care for families with shifting work schedules,

Until June 2021, the state had changed its policy to pay these providers based on enrollment, just like how private child care works. This helped them financially survive the pandemic when many parents kept their kids home.

“The system being on the brink of collapse during the pandemic is also a clear sign of how underfunded, fragmented and disorganized it was… prior to the pandemic,” said Ashley Williams, who directs California policy and educator engagement programs at the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at UC Berkeley.

In this image, a group of children stand to say the pledge of allegiance, while one child stands at the front holding an American flag.
Children recite the Pledge of Allegiance at La Habra Montessori Preschool in Orange County.
(Manoja Weerakoon for LAist)

AB865 would have made this change permanent. Gov. Newsom vetoed the bill saying in a letter to legislators it would cost tens of million dollars a year.

This might seem like a small, wonky policy issue, but it underscores how complex and interconnected California’s child care system is.

Some providers don’t want to risk the financial instability of participating in the subsidy programs. Advocates for parents say that limits options for low-income working families.

“Families are being penalized because of their work situation, and then being left out of the child care market that is the most flexible to actually meet their needs,” Ignatius said.

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.