When it comes to education, the first five years of a child's life are in many ways the most important. Early brain development is in full swing, making it a critical time to cultivate cognitive and emotional skills that will put kids on track to succeed when they hit kindergarten.
But for most families of young children in California, important resources for early childhood development remain out of reach. Most families are unable to pay for child care and preschool on top of the high cost of living, meaning many kids are going into kindergarten well behind their peers, a cascading disadvantage that follows them into middle and high school.
The Right Start Commission, a group of Bay Area politicians, company executives and professors, released a report last week calling on state lawmakers to boost efforts to put these services within reach of as many families as possible. The report recommends that by 2021, all 4-year-old children should have universal access to preschool or transitional kindergarten, as well as child care for kids from infancy to age 3. The goal would be to provide these services in a way that makes them "open to all families, regardless of their ability to pay," according to the report.
In Santa Clara County, affordable preschool options are scarce. The federal Head Start program provides enough funding to serve about 2,000 children from families who are below the national poverty line of $25,000 a year for a family of four, according to Don Bolce, director of early learning services for the Santa Clara County Office of Education. Even though the poverty line threshold is strikingly low relative to the cost of living, Bolce said there are an estimated 2,000 more eligible children in the county who do not have access to the program.
Santa Clara County, local school districts and nonprofits also contract with the state to provide subsidized preschool and child care to about 6,800 children throughout the county, which are also subject to income requirements. A family of four would need to make less than $49,000 a year to qualify. And as with Head Start, a significant number of children are going unserved -- about 4,000 seats would need to be added for eligible students who are unable to get into the packed program, Bolce said.
In the Mountain View Whisman School District, that translates to about 96 state-funded seats for preschool. The waiting list to get one of these coveted spots has had as many as 200 children on it, but names on the list have recently dropped off due to the length of the wait.
Both income thresholds are well below the median income in the Bay Area, but Bolce said any changes would likely worsen the size of the waiting lists unless more preschool spots are made available.
"I think, for fiscal reasons, the state has been reluctant to revisit the eligibility criteria," he said. "It would make more people ineligible to be served because of availability."
Expanding access would require a major increase in the number of preschool and child care providers throughout the state. California has about 3 million children 5 years old and younger, but only 900,000 licensed child care and preschool spaces, according to the report. An estimated 1 million children are cared for in an unlicensed setting by a caregiver who isn't a parent.
Increasing child care access is going to cost a lot -- it is estimated to be a multi-billion-dollar investment -- but it's only one aspect of a major overhaul that needs to happen at the state level, according to Craig Cheslog, vice president for California policy at Common Sense Media. Health care, better compensation and more accountability for child care and preschool providers, and support from private sector employers play an important role in making sure students get the attention and services they need to thrive at an early age, Cheslog said.
"Too narrow of a focus doesn't deal with the complexity of these children's lives and their families," he said. "Making sure they have child care is wonderful -- we have to do it -- but if they aren't healthy or their teeth are rotting, that isn't going to have the positive impact it should have."
On top of the dearth of child care providers, families are faced with a confusing and fragmented system of child care programs that makes it difficult to sign up for services in the first place. The report found that at least 18 public programs are available for children ages 5 and younger, which are administered by 11 government departments with varying and conflicting eligibility requirements.
"When it comes to the broad swath of services aimed at helping California's children, the current bureaucracy is a labyrinth of disjointed boards, commissions, agencies and departments," the report states.
Cheslog said it was clear to the commission that the state needs to restructure these services and get rid of inefficient and overlapping roles, and provide families a one-stop online portal to sign up for child care services. The money saved could be invested back into child care services, though the commission did not determine how much could be saved through consolidation.
Better than Mississippi
Without state or federally subsidized child care, families face having to pay the full cost of child care and preschool, which can leave many families strapped for cash. The average price of child care for infants at a care center is more than $13,000 a year, according to KidsData, a project of the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children's Health. The cost of preschool is estimated at $10,000 a year.
For about 70 percent of families with young children in California, those costs are out of reach, according to the Right Start Commission report. And while some of these families qualify for subsidized child care and preschool, scoring one of the 300,000 available spots is another challenge entirely.
The report recommends a massive overhaul of the state's child care support structure and universal preschool options for 4-year-old kids, but Cheslog said the state can start by bringing back the child care and preschool funding that was cut during the 2008 recession, and never restored following California's latest economic upswing.
"Child care was so decimated during the recession that we still aren't even close to restoring child care to where we were in 2007," Cheslog said.
Lack of affordable child care is particularly bad in California. A 2015 report by Children Now, a research and advocacy group, found that California ranks 38 out of 50 states for metrics including access to health care, education and poverty level. Even worse, California was ranked 49th in terms of children's economic well-being, due in part to high housing costs and lack of secure employment. The only state with a worse track record was Mississippi.
Preparing for kindergarten
One of the key reasons to start investing in early childhood education is to allow children to be on a level playing field once they reach kindergarten. The Right Start Commission report noted that students in lower-income families and families without child care are subjected to what's called a "word gap," meaning they hear about 30 million fewer spoken words by age 3 than their higher-income peers.
Children who hear more words demonstrate better listening comprehension and vocabulary skills in kindergarten, and by age 9 show better academic performance than their peers, according to the report. Bolce said the achievement gap starts out as a "readiness" gap in kindergarten, and big differences in student performance start early. Although some studies have questioned the effectiveness of preschool on subsequent student achievement, Bolce said, the overwhelming evidence has shown child care and preschool investments help to put students on an even playing field when they start school.
"Very few people today question the research or question the logic of making these kinds of investments," he said. "The general consensus is that providing these kinds of experiences for children, particularly low-income children, are important things to do."
Cheslog said the hope is that the commission's report will prompt state lawmakers to take action and expand child care and preschool programs, and that there's already some legislation in the works that could help make the recommendations a reality. Assembly Bill 2660, introduced by Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, would require the state to work on a multi-year plan that would give preschool access to all income-eligible children for at least one year prior to kindergarten.
On the local level, the Mountain View Whisman School District school board has generally supported preschool programs. School board members agreed last year to supplement funding to maintain preschool seats that would have been lost following the end of the state's Child Signature Program.
Board President Ellen Wheeler, a vocal supporter of preschool education, said she was "thrilled" to see the commission's report last week, and called it a critical piece in closing the achievement gap. Wheeler told the Voice in an email that it's also important, if the state moves forward with preschool expansion, to make sure they are "high quality" programs with teacher training specific to the needs of children ages 3 to 4.
"High quality (preschool) has been shown to narrow and close the achievement gap," Wheeler said. "(But) simply sending kids to any old preschool does not have that effect."
Local commitment by school boards may be a big step, at least in the interim, towards bringing preschool to families without access to quality, prekindergarten education. Bolce said the county is supporting the Strong Start Coalition, a group of nonprofit organizations, elected officials and community leaders tasked with expanding early childhood education. The group is charged with finding ways to increase preschool access in Santa Clara County, meeting the needs of thousands of families.
"There's a recognition that maybe we can't wait for Sacramento and Washington to come to the rescue," Bolce said.