As a long-time California education reform advocate, I’ve worked on a range of issues that are critical to ensuring equity and an excellent education for all of our kids.
One issue that too often gets left out of the ed reform debate is early childhood education. The early years of a child’s life are a critical time for brain development, and early experiences have lasting influence on how children learn and grow well into adulthood. An abundance of research has demonstrated the significant gaps that exist between kindergarteners who have received quality early childhood education and those who haven’t.
Individual behavior reflects this research. Most high-income California families ensure their kids receive strong supports in the early years, including from well-trained professionals. Yet while education reform advocates highlight the need for equity in K–12—i.e., if some kids have access to excellent schools, all kids should—that same logic is too often missing when it comes to early education. It’s essential that children have equitable access to comprehensive and high-quality early education.
Despite its importance, early learning has never been sufficiently prioritized in California in terms of access, affordability, and quality. California is home to more than 1.5 million families with infants and toddlers. The majority of them are born into low-income families, 73 percent are children of color, and an estimated 60 percent are dual-language learners. Most of these children qualify for subsidized early childhood education supports. Yet, California has failed to ensure sufficient spaces for income-eligible children—only 14 percent have access to child care and only 38 percent of three-year-olds and 69 percent of four-year-olds are enrolled in preschool. The vast majority of families struggled to find affordable, stable, quality early childhood education before the COVID-19 pandemic. And given the dwindling supply of providers as a result of the pandemic, the gaps have only worsened.
Early education professionals are paid such low wages that 57 percent rely on one or more public benefit programs. There are no strong professional development systems for this workforce. Not only do wages not increase for those who attain higher education, it’s one of the lowest paid careers for professionals with a bachelor's degree. In California, on average, a child care provider earns $26,050 annually, and a preschool teacher earns $34,280 annually. In comparison, the average annual public employee salary is $81,549. These professionals who are vital to our kids’ success must be able to earn a living wage and be paid for their effectiveness and educational attainment.
Furthermore, while providers are struggling to survive, the cost of early childhood education in America as a whole, and in California specifically, is stunning.
According to a recent report from Child Care Aware of America:
- California is the least-affordable state for center-based infant child care, with families spending approximately 17.6 percent of their annual income on child care;
- The annual cost of infant child care—an average of $16,542—exceeds annual in-state tuition fees at a public university;
- In California (and thirty-eight other states), the annual cost of center-based early education for two children—an infant and a four-year-old—exceeds average annual mortgage payments.
Despite the high cost, California is not delivering on quality. Research shows that the quality of early learning settings is the essential factor in producing positive outcomes for children, particularly for children growing up in low-income communities, children of color, and children who are learning more than one language (i.e., the vast majority of young children in California). In addition, research has found that states that have scaled poor quality settings can sometimes actually do more harm than good. Unfortunately, California’s programs rank in the third quartile for quality when evaluated by national researchers.
By not providing equitable access to high-quality early education, California is not only failing young children and their families, it is failing our future at a massive scale. Alarming achievement gaps—fueled in large part by poverty and institutional racism—remain among the biggest in the nation. These gaps often open early in children’s lives, far before kindergarten, and persist over time. Fewer than half of all California elementary school students meet basic grade level standards in English language arts and mathematics, with significant disparities in outcomes by race and income.
To combat these challenges, it is critical that California adequately invest in high-quality early childhood education. Some recent good news is the historic commitment to four-year-olds through the expansion of transitional kindergarten in this year’s state budget. This approach will essentially create a new grade by the 2024–25 academic year. It will be essential that this initiative is structured to respond to the needs of diverse children and families and that it occurs hand-in-hand with a robust expansion of a mixed-delivery child care system to ensure this investment has the intended impact.
Moreover, it will be critical that the state government ensure there are provisions in place to provide family choice and support a comprehensive curriculum approach that is developmentally, culturally, and linguistically matched to the children served. In addition, Sacramento needs to simultaneously invest in expanding child care spaces, stabilize reimbursement rates, and invest in necessary infrastructure, including funding for facilities and workforce development, to allow the child care system to rebound from the devastating effects of the pandemic and build for the future.
Quality early childhood education needs to be at the core of the education reform agenda, not an afterthought. Failure to do so risks underpreparing an entire generation of kids and jeopardizing our state’s economic well-being.
Ted Lempert is the president of Children Now, a nonpartisan research, policy development, and advocacy organization that coordinates the Children’s Movement of California. Previously, he was the founding CEO of EdVoice, a California education reform organization, and represented Silicon Valley for four terms in the California State Assembly, where he authored a number of landmark education laws, including the Charter Schools Act of 1998.