With the agreement of California’s new budget, families and child care providers can breathe a sigh of relief.
The budget includes historic investments for Early Childhood Education (ECE), funding several reforms that activists have pursued for years. These reforms will contribute to making quality ECE available to more families, while invigorating an overburdened system with vital resources.
High-quality, accessible child care does not only impact young families — it builds a community’s present and future. Child care translates immediately into a stronger economy: about 41 percent of U.S. workers between the ages of 20 and 54 have a child at home, according to data from the last decade.
About half of these workers care for a child who is younger than 5. Child care enables these parents to support their families and keep California’s workforce robust. In the long term, good child care enhances academic achievement, increases earning potential, improves health outcomes, reduces crime, and leads to fewer children and families living in poverty. In short, it creates a better society.
And yet, in 2020, only 1-in-9 children in California had access to child care. At Pathways LA, we work with communities, families, child care providers, and policymakers to ensure that low-income and vulnerable working families can access quality early care and education. I am thrilled that Governor Newsom is focusing on California’s ailing child care system, demonstrating his appreciation for child care’s pivotal role in California’s societal and economic health. But while the new budget represents encouraging progress, I hope it is only the first step in revitalizing a critical but long-undernourished system.
The most significant items in the ECE budget are rate reform, increased slots for subsidized child care, and universal transitional kindergarten.
Rate reform is long-overdue. The state subsidizes many early childhood centers to accept low-income children. But this rate has not been updated in five years. According to the current rates, subsidized child care providers make between $3.20 and $9.50 an hour, leaving many providers in untenable positions. While many centers endured financial loss, fluctuating enrollment, and risk of illness to stay open throughout the pandemic so essential workers could continue to do their jobs, others were forced to close.
The new budget would raise the rate for each subsidized child by using figures from 2018 rather than 2016. A recent agreement with Child Care Providers United further guarantees each provider a 15% raise through 2023. These increases are a victory. In order to compensate providers equitably, though, these rates must continue to keep pace with the market. Furthermore, I would like to see the 15% raise extended; the current agreement leaves rates vulnerable to reversion two years from now.
As well as raising rates, the budget also creates 200,000 slots of subsidized child care over the next five years. These will go a long way towards providing child care for families who struggle to make ends meet. But not long enough. California has an estimated 500,000 children on a waiting list for subsidized day care. Several of these families have waited for years.
For the situation to change, the state needs more providers. Nearly half of Californians live in “child care deserts,” neighborhoods without enough providers to meet the needs of the community. But to attract enough talented providers to fill the promised 200,000 slots—as well as the remaining 300,000—the state must offer equitable pay.
The third significant reform in the budget is universal transitional kindergarten (TK), an additional year of school for four-year-olds. TK serves as a bridge between preschool and kindergarten. Until now, the program was open only to children who would turn five before December 2; now, it is being expanded to include all four-year-olds. I support giving young children the opportunity to develop fundamental skills that will prepare them for educational success; however, several elements of the program concern me.
Fundamentally, many four-year-olds are not developmentally ready for the rigors of a school setting. They thrive with the consistency, slower pace, and warmth of a preschool, where they can form attachments to caring adults who manage not only their early learning, but also their social and emotional development.
Practically speaking, I hope policy makers will design a program flexible enough to accommodate families’ individual needs. Family work schedules in California are just as diverse as our population and switching programs in the middle of the day can be disruptive to a tender four-year-old.
Also, universal TK will demand an expanded school staff, sufficient for a low student-to-teacher ratio. But early child care providers are already difficult to recruit and retain. In addition to properly compensating these providers, I hope the state government will harness existing resources by working with private care centers. By doing so, they can roll out the new policy in a way that benefits everyone, without introducing unnecessary competition.
Communities across the state agree that investing in high-quality early care and education is critical to maintaining strong, healthy families. Equitably reimbursing providers and adding child care slots for families in need are essential steps to repairing a fractured ECE field—but the state must not stop there. The future of the child care industry—and, by extension, of California’s children—depends on them.
Tamika Farr is the CEO of Pathways LA, a non-profit organization committed to supporting the healthy development and school readiness of young children from disadvantaged communities.