California Must Do Better for Little Kids and their Families

Early childhood education can drive equity, if we do it right

By Children Now Early Childhood Team

May 21, 2021

Kids and Families in California – By the Numbers

  • California is home to 9.1 million children, two million of whom are babies and toddlers.
  • 500,000 babies are born in California each year, and 3 out of 5 babies are born into low-income households, earning incomes that are 200% of the federal poverty level or below.
  • There are 4.2 million immigrant families in the state.
  • Approximately 73% of California children, birth to age four, are kids of color.
  • In California, 36% of all kids under the age of five speak English and a second language at home.

The first few 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. Children’s short- and long-term well-being is fueled by good health, positive and nurturing relationships with adults, enriching learning opportunities, and safe places to play. Therefore, it is essential that children have equitable access to comprehensive, whole-child early care and education (ECE) that provides them with responsive, nurturing care that fosters their learning and growth.

But systemic racism and inequities, combined with California’s stark levels of income inequality, mean that California’s youngest children – from all racial, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds – have inequitable ECE access, experiences, and outcomes. And research clearly shows that the disparities which drive achievement and opportunity gaps open early in children’s lives and, once present, are more difficult to resolve and more likely to persist throughout childhood. Against this backdrop, the state’s underinvestment and underdevelopment of the ECE system in its current form – long wait lists for subsidies, burdensome family fees and a fragmented, confusing system where 76% of parents say that high-quality childcare and preschool is only available for families who can afford it and 62% say they have had to sacrifice quality when choosing childcare or preschool – serves not to lift up families but instead to perpetuate disproportionate barriers and adverse impacts along racial and economic lines.


Caring, responsive interactions are critical to healthy development

The most critical element to quality early experiences, by far, is the trusting, responsive relationship and interactions between children and the adults caring for them. This can occur in many types of ECE settings – from a family/friend/neighbor caregiving situation to a licensed family child care home to a private center or an Early Head Start program. The common denominator is the trusted, engaging relationships which are shown by research to fuel healthy brain development.

As such, the ECE workforce is essential to delivering positive outcomes for children as it is the nurturing, positive interactions that make a significant difference in the development of children. In California, however, the ECE workforce – largely comprised of women of color – is paid near-poverty wages themselves. As a result, these caregivers may struggle to care for themselves and their own families and experience undue stress, due to constantly changing expectations, poor wages, few or no benefits, overly complex/punitive funding requirements, multiple complex contracts, and unstable funding. It is critical that these essential caregivers and teachers are valued, compensated, and supported within the early childhood field.


Taking a whole-family approach is key

Additionally, comprehensive whole-child, whole-family ECE programs can play a powerful role in addressing the multifaceted challenges most families in California face. When parents and caregivers are struggling to make ends meet, or facing unmet basic needs, housing insecurity, or health challenges, there can be added stress and strain in the household. By not just offering children safe, nurturing care and education but by also taking a whole-family approach and offering health services, assistance accessing safety net programs and case-by-case individual support as needed, comprehensive, whole-child programs like Head Start help get families what they need – all that they need – in one place.


We must center equity in early care and education

Yet, with so many families and providers struggling, the current systems perpetuate inequities rather than disrupt them. For example, nearly 60% of ECE providers relied on public assistance to make ends meet, child care subsidies for infants and toddlers served only 14% of eligible families pre-pandemic and current capacity of Head Start and Early Head Start only reaches 30% of eligible three- to five-year-olds and a mere 8% of eligible birth- to three-year-olds in California. With government not rising to the challenges facing families and the workforce today, the state risks underpreparing entire generations of kids for the challenges of the future, putting the state’s economic and social well-being at risk. And the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has made this situation worse for millions for families.

As a state, we are not walking the walk when it comes to equity. State leaders are dedicated to improving access to ECE, but unless we simultaneously ensure that every new child care slot is resourced for and built around principles that center a comprehensive whole-child set of values, children and families will be not better off. Research by Nobel Laureate Professor James Heckman shows that investing in comprehensive early childhood programs can yield up to a 13% return on investment per year in reductions in later spending on education, health, and safety net programs. Conversely, increasing accessing to programs that do not center families or meet their needs may do more harm than good. Building a system that pays providers a living wage and broadly offers families choices for comprehensive, whole-child ECE is key to addressing deep systemic inequities in overall education and child outcomes, and it has potential to significantly reduce disparities and close opportunity gaps.

Over the next year, we’ll be taking a closer look at early care and education in California – specifically through an equity lens – to better understand what is missing in the current system, what we need to do as advocates to ensure the system is strong, coherent and that all kids are getting access to comprehensive, whole-child early learning opportunities, why this matters, and how it affects all of us.

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