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Governor Gavin Newsom Has An Army Of Early Childhood Advisors. Meet One Of Them.

Kris Perry is the California Health and Human Services Agency Deputy Secretary for Early Childhood Development. (Priska Neely/LAist)
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When he was presenting the latest revisions for California's $213 billion state budget Thursday, Governor Gavin Newsom dedicated more than nine minutes to his "parents agenda" and the nearly $2 billion in proposed investments to expand child care and preschool slots, provide more training for teachers, and extend paid parental leave.

"We are building the architecture for a new master plan in California, but it's a master plan for early learning and for child care," Newsom said during a press conference. "It's long overdue."

(You can explore those proposals in detail here.)

Early childhood education experts agree that these changes are overdue -- and they're also unprecedented.

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Newsom is putting together a veritable army of advisors specializing in early childhood throughout his administration. His chief of staff is a nationally recognized expert on early childhood policy, he has an early education advisor in his office, and he appointed the state's first-ever surgeon general who is focused on reducing childhood trauma. And his Deputy Secretary of the Health and Human Services Agency, Kris Perry is working to implement the Governor's early childhood development initiatives.

And if Perry's name sounds familiar, she was also the lead plaintiff in the case that overturned California's ban on gay marriage.

"It is really exciting to be here now with a governor who's so committed to early childhood and strategic about how to move the needle for kids," Perry told KPCC/LAist. "It's really important to have a budget that reflects those values, but it's also important to look at who the people are, that are going to help carry that message across multiple departments, agencies and years."

I spoke with her about her unique role, what she thinks it'll take to keep early childhood investments off the budget chopping block, and how she got into the early childhood field.

The conversation below has been edited for clarity.

PN: Has this position ever existed before?

KP: This role that I'm in is brand new. It's very symbolic and very important in filling out a team of people that are focused on early childhood across multiple parts of state government. Health and human services in California manages a vast majority of resources -- public resources that taxpayers and other people contribute to our system. And being here means helping to shepherd those resources in a way that's focused on young children. So this is pretty exciting.

PN: Seeing these appointments and seeing the January budget proposals, I've heard from so many people who have been in this world for decades who are just shocked because they've never seen anything like this before.

KP: It's really positive. We've come through a really difficult time as a state. The recession left many families, individuals, [and] programs in a far worse state than they were in before. And even though we're experiencing a better economic picture than we have for a long time, there's still another recession coming at some point. And so this takes a tremendous amount of strategy.

So it's one thing to come into office as Governor Brown did when things were very difficult and to lead us out of that difficult period. But to come in when things are in sort of boom-times, and know that there's lots of pent-up demand for services and supports across the state, you have to think more strategically about one-time investments or short-term investments that push us to a better place, and hopefully we can sustain that later on in many different ways. It's really exciting to think about bringing people in while you can to solve some of these really long-standing problems we've had as a state with some resources that will hopefully take us to a better place that we can sustain.

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PN: It seems kind of like almost like a little ECE army ...

KP: Well, you know, within early childhood, it's multifaceted. There are health and human services programs, childcare programs, educational programs, there's licensing their facilities, there's a workforce, it's really complicated. There's higher education, parents, in order to be judicious and thoughtful and strategic, you really do have to bring people in from all different sectors to get to the best possible solutions.

PN: You mentioned that we're in a really good place right now with the economy. What does it take to not have early childhood be the first thing on the chopping block if that changes?

Well, what's interesting about early childhood is it's an extremely popular issue. What we haven't figured out in the early childhood movement is how to move voters from being interested in it to demanding it. So there's public will, and there's public demand. And when you do get into tougher economic times, and you are making tough choices, if you don't have the people of California with you, you're right, what will happen is we'll probably have to shrink the resources we're attributing to it and/or take whole parts of it out so that we can afford to at least meet some of the needs that are out there.

It's easier to keep that from happening if we all keep raising the profile of early childhood education and what it can do for our entire society. That's a job that goes beyond the early childhood experts and becomes something that everybody -- business leaders, faith leaders, political leaders -- should be sort of beating the drum around. It's going to take a lot of people in many different sectors.

PN: You've worked for Save the Children, First Five Years Fund, First 5 Contra Costa County. How did you find find your way into this work?

KP: Well, I went to social work school in San Francisco a long time ago. And the very first thing I did when I left was go to work in Alameda County as a child abuse investigator. And it was at the height of the HIV, crack cocaine epidemic and we were removing children from their homes every day, for what was essentially unaddressed poverty. And after a number of years of doing that kind of frontline work and seeing the system attempt to help but not really be equipped to help, I became more and more interested in bigger system-wide change and prevention.

PN: So in making the case to people who maybe aren't aware of the value of the early years, how do you kind of make that connection for people who maybe don't have children or who may not be thinking about early childhood in their day-to-day lives?

KP: We know that the brain is growing more rapidly before your fifth birthday than at any other time in your life. And we also know, we're spending as little as we possibly can of public funds on children under the age of five.

But I think on a more sort of emotional basis -- everybody can picture a future with prosperous, happy, successful Californians in it, versus one where we've sidelined 20, 30, 40, 50 percent of children until they're adults and we haven't given them a lane, they haven't been able to get ready and compete. We can all imagine that if you keep putting people on the outside of the lane and then add 20 years to that scenario, you don't have a prosperous, successful state. You have one where you're spending the vast amount of your resources on safety net programs, on criminal justice, on remediation.

And so investing in little kids has this sense of like almost infinite potential. Giving everybody the chance to achieve their greatest potential feels like common sense to me. That's why I'm here. But I think most people can remember their own childhood and can remember feeling like somebody invested in them, and can at least kind of empathize probably with what it would be like to be a child in California today.

PN: I'm always struck by the disparities present in this state when we look at various outcomes. I think people are always surprised by the poverty rates here. I spent a lot of last year reporting on the very high rates of black infant mortality. And I think that's always very surprising to people. And I think that's just kind of a really important lens to have, when you're looking at, you know, a very wealthy state.

You're bringing up so many critical parts of this, of the state and how there really are two states. There are people who I guess you could say are making it, and those who are not. What we're trying to do with policy or law is create equality. And you can do that through investments in programs that help lift people out of poverty. But you can also do it through tax credits that directly benefit families to do the things they need to do to survive and succeed.

There is a racial divide. And it is very alarming what's going on with African American moms and newborns in the state and across the country. We have a Black Infant Health program in California, the governor has proposed a pretty big increase for that program. And that's terrific.

I think the arrival of Dr. Nadine Burke Harris is going to help shed an even bigger light on the problem and maybe we'll get to a better solution.

PN: What would you say to a baby about what life could look like when they're five? What do you hope to be laying the foundation for them?

The two things I would really hope for a baby in California today would be to have a rich and positive connection with a loving caregiver who can focus on them, who is getting supported enough to be able to put everything aside and bond and attach and love that baby. That is the most critical ingredient to success.

The second thing I would really hope for this baby is that in addition to that loving caregiver, that there was a bigger system, that the community -- whether that's the education system, the health system, extended family, or neighbors -- have a real commitment to them, to care for them, look out for them, provide for them and help them succeed in ways their parents can't.

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