by Sarah Crow
Since the Governor released his revised budget on May 13, the early childhood community has redoubled its efforts to convince the administration and legislators that the budget process is not the appropriate one to make sweeping changes to the early care and education system in California. The May revise contains many of the same elements that were included in January’s budget with respect to early childhood, but somewhat refined. It’s likely that individual elements of these proposals will be modified during budget negotiations, but overall, it is clear through both of these documents that the Governor has three central convictions when it comes to early learning:
1. Funding streams should be consolidated and simplified.
The Governor isn’t the only one who would appreciate seeing a little less complexity in the way we fund early learning programs. Program directors have complained for years about the different rules they must understand, and the different requirements they must follow, to receive Title 5 contracts and CalWORKs vouchers. Voucher system providers—those who care for children whose parents receive CalWORKs assistance and some other low-income parents—are reimbursed at the Regional Market Rate (RMR), which varies by county. Contract system providers—those who have contracts with the state to care for children eligible for subsidies—receive a Standard Reimbursement Rate (SRR), which is the same across the state. Many providers receive both rates, neither of which has been rationally updated to reflect today’s market costs, nor state or local adjustments to the minimum wage.
The Governor proposes a single set of provider reimbursement rates that reflect the cost of doing business across the state, as well as a single set of minimum quality and program guidelines for all subsidized preschool settings. The plan envisions improved access to information for parents, and more efficiency for providers. These are goals many can get behind.
2. Early learning programs should be coordinated closely with the K-12 education system.
The Governor’s proposal included the creation of an Early Education Block Grant, which would send consolidated funding to school districts to allocate to providers who meet a high bar for quality. The proposed streamlined governance structure could improve alignment between early childhood and K-12 systems, coordinate services to ease burdens on families accessing programs, and track local access to subsidized programs, helping districts quantify local needs. In addition, setting clear standards for high-quality programs—as well as an ongoing statewide assessment of program equity—would help ensure all children enter school with the skills they need to succeed both as students and as healthy, productive adults.
But the transition to an efficient system of high-quality early learning must carefully consider short-term implications for providers, including where to set the quality standards and how to help providers reach them without losing state funding or compromising families’ access to programs that meet their diverse needs. His proposal, however, raises many questions about the impact on providers and families. It does not spell out how this system would serve children younger than 4, and it does not provide much in the way of recognition of the benefits of the mixed delivery system we have today.
But the Governor is on to something: the K-12 education system is a powerful platform to administer early childhood programs. Local education agencies are trusted parts of the community, in large part because they provide education to all. Early childhood programs, like the Transitional Kindergarten (TK) program that was enacted under this Governor, is a step in the right direction to expand early learning opportunities. California’s TK program has been proven effective in advancing children’s learning and development.
3. No new funding is available.
Unfortunately, these promising ideas are not met with any additional funding in the Governor’s proposal, meaning he expects to balance out reimbursement rates for providers without adding to the pool of funds. He expects to heighten the quality of care provided, without paying providers significantly more. He does not propose adding any additional slots, despite recent estimates that more than 33,000 low-income 4-year-olds lack access to state preschool, Transitional Kindergarten or Head Start in California.
The California Legislature has shown increasing commitment to investing in early childhood programs, however. It has rejected the Governor’s proposal to combine funding streams and defund Transitional Kindergarten. The Assembly Budget Subcommittee approved a $619 million Early Education Plan that adds 16,000 new preschool and child care slots, substantially increases reimbursement rates for providers, and reestablishes eligibility guidelines so that working families can earn more without losing access to subsidized care. These investments also represent long-term commitments to ensuring high-quality programs for California children through an additional annual $25 million for the state’s Quality Rating Improvement System, and the establishment of the Blue Ribbon Commission to improve services for children ages zero to three and lay the groundwork for Universal Pre-Kindergarten for all 4-year-olds.
The Governor is a savvy politician and has a long commitment to strengthening the state of California. Concepts similar to these have been part of some of his legacy policy changes over the course of his second stint as Governor. The early childhood community likely can’t—and shouldn’t— reject them out of hand. But a detailed, deliberate discussion is necessary to ensure that these principles best serve California’s low-income children, and support the workforce that is dedicated to their education and care.