Quality early learning can help Brown achieve education goals
As Gov.-elect Jerry Brown formulates his policy agenda to ensure the long-term success of California, I hope he makes high-quality early education a priority. I was pleased to see that Michael Kirst, who co-authored Brown’s education plan, noted that the new governor will address preschool in his education agenda. Not only does high-quality early childhood education support many of Brown’s initiatives, but there are also many immediate opportunities to make strides toward expanding and improving early learning in California.
Brown’s education plan discusses important priorities such as expanding math, science, and technology education; improving proficiency in English; and increasing high school graduation rates. High-quality early learning programs help to address these goals at the beginning by promoting early math skills, supporting language development, and building early literacy. These skills build the foundation necessary for success in school and beyond, helping to narrow the achievement gap from the start. In fact, studies have shown that children who attend high-quality preschool are less likely to drop out of high school, be placed in special education, or held back a grade, and are more likely to score better on reading and math achievement tests.
Though Brown will take office in the wake of a budget crisis and will have to make difficult choices, these benefits demonstrate why we must take advantage of opportunities to support early learning. This begins with preserving and protecting our existing early care and education investments. Most immediately, these crucial programs include CalWORKs Stage 3 child care funding, which provides critical child care services for low-income working families who have been off welfare for at least 24 months. The program serves 56,000 children and 60,000 families. Especially in these tough economic times, it supports parents’ efforts to maintain employment and keep California working.
While we are in a time with few new resources, California must also do more and better with what we have in the long term. We have a significant opportunity with the passage of the Kindergarten Readiness Act (SB 1381, sponsored by Sens. Simitian and Steinberg), signed earlier this fall. This historic reform to kindergarten education creates transitional kindergarten, the first year of a two-year kindergarten experience for students born between September and December. The kindergarten entry-date change and creation of transitional kindergarten give California an unparalleled opportunity to ensure that 120,000 more children each year are better prepared to succeed in kindergarten and beyond. As governor, Brown can ensure more of California’s children are prepared to succeed in school by making certain this program is done right. Furthermore, he can help encourage families to take advantage of this additional option to give their children the opportunity to enter kindergarten with the maturity and skills they need to succeed.
California also needs Brown’s leadership in continuing our work to better use existing resources by improving our early learning system. We have already taken steps to reduce bureaucracy, increase local flexibility, and use funds more efficiently by consolidating state child development programs. This streamlining has resulted in 19,000 additional children served without any new funding.
Efforts are also underway to raise the quality of our early learning programs by developing a system that evaluates and provides financial incentives to reach higher quality. This Early Learning Quality Rating Scale (QRS) will raise quality, improve accountability, and better prepare children to succeed in school. The new California Early Learning Advisory Council (ELAC) will provide ongoing support for the quality rating system and has already received $10.8 million in federal funding to create a pilot program. Early learning system reforms like this help make California competitive for our share of more potential federal funds. As our new governor, Brown must act as a strong voice for California’s federal funding needs and ensure that we build on our progress in making the state eligible for these funds.
Researchers and economists, including Nobel Laureate James Heckman, agree: High-quality early learning is one of the best financial investments California can make. Brown has a golden opportunity to fuel the long-term growth and prosperity of the Golden State by working to build a foundation from early childhood to the early elementary years. He can help to ensure our state’s youngest learners are successful in school and in life by preserving and protecting our current early learning investments; ensuring transitional kindergarten is done right; and doing more with our existing resources, including raising the quality of our programs.
Catherine Atkin is president of Preschool California, a non-profit advocacy organization working to increase access to high-quality early learning programs for all of California’s children, starting with those who need it most.