Research shows quality early care and education (ECE) can drive positive outcomes for children, by fostering their earliest learning and development, setting them on a strong foundation for school and life. This is particularly true for children who face poverty, systemic racism and children who are learning more than one language, in other words, the vast majority of young children in California. An investment in quality ECE programs has a direct positive, multidimensional economic impact on parents, the workforce, and the local economy—not to mention long-term benefits to children and society as a whole.
Quality ECE isn’t about whether a program is in a family home or a child care center, it isn’t about having the most classroom materials, or even the most rigorous academic curriculum – it’s about the adults. Secure, responsive adult-child interactions and the resulting relationships are the bedrock of quality. Young kids learn best through enriching experiences and relationships with caring adults.
When adults caring for children have sufficient knowledge, skills, and experience, are well-supported by systems, and have their own basic needs met, then they are best able to foster each child’s potential and set the stage for children’s good health, academic success, and economic security later in life.
Early care and education professionals are key to CA’s future
For decades, California policy and budget decisions have undervalued and underinvested in the early childhood workforce, creating conditions within classrooms and programs that not only create economic hardships for educators, but also fail kids. The educational requirements for staff remain low even though the knowledge and skills necessary to effectively support young children are complex. Additionally, due in part to low reimbursement rates, poor compensation is a significant problem, with 58% of the ECE workforce relying on public assistance to make ends meet. A 2016 study of ECE teaching staff in Alameda County found that 75% of those surveyed worried about having enough money to pay the bills, 70% worried about housing or health care costs, and 54% worried about being able to feed their family each month. Not surprisingly, given these economic hardships, an average of one in four ECE educators in California leave the profession each year.
Although child care investments are central to California’s plan to promote family self-sufficiency, the state’s own lack of leadership has actually reinforced and perpetuated systemic income disparities for critically important ECE professionals, harming them and their families, as well as young children and families in California. These conditions are untenable for educators, and the stress and lack of stability have a negative impact on children’s learning environments and achievement.
An opportunity to invest in California children
California has an opportunity to invest in its children by investing in its educators. To do so would take a multidimensional approach: establishing a statewide workforce registry to gather data; strengthening professional development systems by articulating competencies, qualifications, and related career advancement pathways; and most critically, restructuring financing and rates to raise compensation and stabilize the workforce.
Initial steps have been taken through California’s Commission on Teacher Credentialing and the federal Preschool Development Grant, but much more remains to be done. Unfortunately, the 2020-21 California State Budget rescinded the $195 million Workforce Development funding that was secured in the previous year’s budget. In addition, while there has been some planning to reform California’s ECE finance system, those efforts need to be adopted by policymakers and appropriately financed to provide competitive wages and stabilize the field.
In December, the Newsom Administration will release the Master Plan on Early Learning and Care, which the Governor has promised will be a roadmap to get to universal preschool and access to quality child care for all families. While we understand the implementation timetable may be delayed as a result of the current health and economic crises, that detailed action plan to expand high-quality ECE for all families is needed now more than ever.
Improving high-quality ECE begins with the workforce
For years, California’s early learning programs have lagged persistently far behind other states on quality benchmarks, and children furthest from opportunity had least access. California must elevate early care and education as a profession across the mixed delivery system, by designing competencies that give credit for providers’ existing experience and knowledge, raising education and experience standards over time, ensuring compensation rises commensurate with higher qualifications, and building future expansions of preschool and child care upon the foundation of a skilled, well-compensated workforce. This will take leadership and resources.
Research shows that strategic early childhood policy and investment can help the state solve some big problems, and address deep longstanding inequities that impact both young children and the workforce that serves them, but California has not done enough to connect these dots. As we think about what needs to happen from here, it’s more important than ever that we protect not only access to ECE but that we are also building in policy, resources, and systems to deliver comprehensive, high-quality ECE services across the mixed delivery system and for all children and families.