Policy Choices to Support California’s Early Learners

State policymakers are currently finalizing the details of California’s 2015-16 budget, making choices that will affect California’s early learners — children ages 0 to 5. California’s child care and development system supports nearly 300,000 early learners through subsidized child care programs and the state preschool program. These programs can offer parents peace of mind that their children are in a safe environment, while making it possible for these parents to earn money for food and rent. Subsidized child care and preschool also support children during critical stages of development, which lays the foundation for future learning.

Funding for California’s child care and development system has been cut dramatically in recent years and is still operating at recession-era levels. While the Governor has proposed only minor changes in funding for these programs, the budget plans put forth by the Senate and Assembly both include major investments in 2015-16 in order to begin building back a system that supports many of the state’s early learners and their families.

Current 2015-16 Budget Proposals

The 2014-15 budget agreement included a moderate reinvestment in subsidized child care and the state preschool program, but current funding is still $1.1 billion below 2007-08, after adjusting for inflation. The Governor’s May Revision of his 2015-16 budget includes another modest increase in funding for these programs, including a 1.7 percent increase in the number of slots for the state preschool program and a small cost-of-living increase for provider payment rates, along with a number of technical caseload adjustments. With these changes, funding for these programs would remain nearly $1 billion lower than in 2007-08, after adjusting for inflation.

6.5.15 Child Care Funding as of MR-01

On the other hand, the Senate and Assembly budget proposals both would take large strides to strengthen these critical programs. Both chambers adopt the majority of the changes made in the Governor’s May Revision and also extend collective bargaining rights to family child care workers. In addition, the Senate’s plan would increase the number of slots by about 5 percent and boost provider payment rates roughly 4 to 10 percent, depending on the type of provider. The Senate plan also proposes to reverse the decision made in 2011 to remove subsidized child care programs from the Proposition 98 minimum funding guarantee. Adding these child care programs (with the exception of CalWORKs Stage 1 child care) back to the list of programs funded through Proposition 98 could protect them from cuts in the future, provided they remain under the umbrella of the Proposition 98 guarantee.

The Assembly plan boosts the number of slots by 20,500, but provides a much larger increase in provider payment rates — 20 percent and higher for some providers. The Assembly plan includes additional investments intended to enhance the quality of care, such as funding for professional development and block grants for quality improvement activities. Further, the Assembly plan updates the state’s outdated income eligibility limit, in addition to making other changes that improve quality and access.

The Legislature’s budget conference committee has been meeting throughout this week to reconcile differences between the two chambers’ budget plans on this issue and others. Conference committee deliberations could extend through the end of this week and into the weekend as they finalize decisions on this and other topics, as well. The choices they make regarding California’s child care and development system are critical to many families throughout the state struggling to make ends meet.

The Importance of Reinvestment in Subsidized Child Care and Preschool

Children begin learning before birth and continue to develop at an exponential pace in the first years of life. This early development lays the foundation for children’s ability to learn and thrive when they enter school. Unfortunately, children from families with low incomes often experience hardships that can adversely affect development. By the time they enter kindergarten, many children from low-income families will not be as ready for school as children from higher-income families. This difference is frequently referred to as the “achievement gap,” and it is often evident as early as nine months of age and continues to grow wider as children grow older.

However, as babies develop and grow, the environment they are exposed to and the relationships that are created with caregivers can have a profound effect on their development. Family supports such as high-quality child care and preschool programs can help to mitigate the effects of poverty and narrow or even close the achievement gap. Addressing the development of children living in poverty creates a solid foundation for learning, which can have lifelong consequences. Because of this, it is incredibly important that policymakers make choices that support early learners living in poverty.

As Governor Brown and leaders in the Senate and Assembly finalize California’s 2015-16 budget in the next few weeks, they should bear in mind that an investment in California’s child care and development system is a matter of supporting children who face a variety challenges from the pressure of poverty before they enter kindergarten. Making greater investments in our early learners not only can change children’s lives, but can also maximize California’s future potential.

— Kristin Schumacher