Lynette Stewart plays with her son Quincy, 3, in Marin City. (Photo by Zaidee Stavely/EdSource)

When her son Quincy was 6 weeks old, Lynette Stewart dropped him off at a child care center in Long Beach, and headed back to work, with a hard ball of worry in her chest.

“I cried my eyes out, especially that first week of leaving him there,” Stewart said. “No one wants to take their baby, who can’t communicate, to a stranger at that age.”

At the time, in 2015, Stewart was working as an administrative assistant at a small company that made kombucha, a fermented tea. She was raising her two boys, Quincy and his teenage brother, alone while earning just $17 an hour — about $35,360 a year. Stewart had taken the six weeks of partially paid disability leave available to mothers in California after they give birth. She was also eligible for an additional six weeks off, as paid family leave, but that leave would also be only partially paid and she couldn’t afford the continued cut to her income.

She was also afraid she might lose her job. Because she was working for a small company with fewer than 20 employees, she had no job protection under California or federal law.

“The six weeks was already pretty frowned upon by my boss,” Stewart said. “He let me know he wasn’t happy.” She said he questioned her about how long she would be gone and asked her what the company was supposed to do to fill her position during her absence.

“One of my checks went literally to the rent and one went to day care. And there was hardly anything left over,” said Lynette Stewart, mother of 3-year-old Quincy in Marin City.

The cost of child care made Stewart’s return to work even more difficult. Although she didn’t know it, Stewart would have qualified for subsidized child care under California law. But even if she had applied, her chances of landing a spot would have been slim. Only 1 in 9 children eligible for subsidized care in California receive full-time, full-year care. The problem, born of minimal funding, is national. Unaware of her options, Stewart turned to an online moms’ group for reviews of affordable child care centers. The one she found — in a worn-down building next to a liquor store and close to her home — cost $950 a month, a third of her income.

“One of my checks went literally to the rent and one went to day care. And there was hardly anything left over,” Stewart said. “You know, we had food, we had gas for the car to go to work and go home. No cable, nothing else. There were no vacations, no going to the movies, just the basics.”

So in 2018, when Stewart heard then-gubernatorial candidate Gavin Newsom talking about paid family leave and universal preschool, she knew she was going to vote for him.

A majority of Californians voted the same way and now Gov. Newsom, father to four children of his own, has approved an unprecedented investment in young children and their families: about $5.5 billion in total spending for child care and preschool, plus additional funding for paid leave and a host of related measures.

The investment has been hailed by early childhood experts and advocates as a major step forward for California, which has not historically been a leader on early childhood policies.

Momentum in California could matter for the country.

California has more children — over 9 million — than any other state. New York, with 4.1 million children, and Texas, with roughly 7.4 million, both trail the Golden State. The state’s sheer size, plus its many regional differences, make providing universal child care, preschool or extended paid family leave a feat that would parallel the scope of a national effort. And as the 2020 Democratic candidates work to one-up each other on how many benefits they’ll provide to working parents and young children, what happens in California could be predictive of the likely success or failure of large-scale national policy changes.

“It’s such a big deal,” said Kris Perry, senior adviser to the governor on implementation of early childhood development initiatives. Perry has worked as executive director both at First 5 California, a statewide commission, and the First Five Years Fund, a national bipartisan group, both of which advocate for young children. “The new money that the governor is investing in young children is historic and it’s wide ranging, so it’s not just how much, but it’s how many different parts of children’s lives it touches.”

Lynette Stewart lifts her son Quincy, 3, at the park in Marin City.

California’s latest budget will allow about 31,600 more children to enroll in state-subsidized child care centers and preschools, in addition to the 470,900 already being served.

More low-income parents will receive home visits from nurses and other professionals who can help them identify developmental delays and access resources to help them be the best first teachers to their babies. There is new money for reimbursing doctors for screening children for developmental delays and trauma.

Beginning July 1, 2020, new parents and other workers in California can take eight weeks of partially paid family leave, instead of six, to care for new babies or ill family members, in addition to the six weeks of paid disability leave for mothers after they give birth. Disability and family leave are both paid for in California by a 1 percent payroll tax on employees. The Legislature is not increasing the tax to fund the program, instead using the program’s reserves to pay for the additional leave.

An increase in the amount of partially paid family leave to eight weeks would probably not have changed anything for Stewart. Like many women, she couldn’t afford to live on partial wages any longer than six weeks.

This common predicament is why the governor is convening a task force to consider a further expansion of leave to allow each child to be cared for by a parent or family member for a full six months, increase the percentage of wages that low-income workers can be paid during leave, from 70 to 90 percent, and provide job protection during family leave for those who work at small businesses, as Stewart did when Quincy was born.

Benefits like these are common in other developed countries. Canada, Japan and most European countries offer close to a year of fully paid family leave. Even Mexico guarantees 12 weeks, according to data from the OECD. However, the U.S. does not have a federal paid leave policy and only four states — New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and California — guarantee any paid leave. Washington State and Washington, D.C. have adopted policies that will begin offering benefits in 2020, according to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service. Massachusetts will begin offering benefits in 2021, Connecticut in 2022 and Oregon in 2023.

But while this year’s investment and policy changes pushed California to the front of the family-leave pack, the state still trails others in early education. After years of recession-era cuts, hundreds of thousands of qualified low-income children in the state are still not enrolled in subsidized child care or preschool. The quality of care here lags behind many other states, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), based at Rutgers University, which ranks all state-funded preschool programs every year.

“We serve a fifth of the country’s young children, so it’s a mammoth responsibility, and to date we just really haven’t had the investments,” said Beth Meloy, senior researcher and policy analyst at Learning Policy Institute, a nonprofit research and policy organization. “California is not on the list of states that have managed to create really coherent high-quality early learning systems that are doing a good job of providing equitable access.”

“Now, if it does work on Mars [aka California], we’re pretty sure it will work in Iowa,” said Steven Barnett, co-director, National Institute for Early Education Research.

And even while progress remains relatively slow, more and more states are upping their investment in more and higher-quality early education. Colorado’s new governor just signed a law funding free full-day kindergarten, which he said will also free up more than 5,000 preschool slots. Vermont and Oklahoma provide state preschool to more than 75 percent of their 4-year-olds, while also meeting most of NIEER’s quality standards. All three states are significantly smaller than California. California’s size makes its efforts more noteworthy to leaders in other states.

“If it fails [in California], I don’t think that has negative consequences elsewhere,” said Steven Barnett, co-director of NIEER. It would be “almost as if it didn’t work on Mars or the moon. That almost doesn’t have any implications to whether it works in Iowa. Now, if it does work on Mars, we’re pretty sure it will work in Iowa.”

If a program works in California, it might work nationwide. Several Democratic presidential candidates have already mentioned a national early childhood agenda as part of their platforms.

Former Vice President Joe Biden said he would “work with states” to provide preschool to all 3- and 4-year-olds, in addition to expanding home visiting programs and assessments to identify developmental delays. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who according to his campaign page once worked as a Head Start preschool teacher, has not set forth a specific plan, though in 2011 he introduced a bill that would have provided 10 states with grants to provide high-quality child care to all children from the age of 6 weeks until they entered kindergarten, with additional states phased in after three years.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s plan is the most detailed, so far: A proposal to subsidize a network of child care centers, preschools and child care homes to which all families with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty line ($51,500 for a family of four) would be able to send their children for free, while families making more than that would not have to spend more than 7 percent of their income. Sen. Kamala Harris said she supports the Child Care for Working Families Act, under which any family making less than 150 percent of their state’s median income would pay no more than 7 percent of that income on child care.

Of course, any of their proposals would need approval from Congress.

Meloy, of the Learning Policy Institute, and other early childhood experts see this year’s efforts as laying the groundwork California needs to build a better system later. For example, the 2019-20 budget includes funding to create a master plan that could lead to public preschool for all 4-year-olds, regardless of income, improve quality and access to care and increase pay for child care providers. The budget also establishes grants for building or renovating child care facilities, which are currently too scarce and too poorly maintained to serve many more children. And it will allow the state to gather and analyze data on providers and children in subsidized care to assess quality and track children’s progress.

One key aspect advocates say is missing from California’s new investment in early child care is money to increase wages for child care providers, something experts agree is crucial for improving quality.

The new budget does include funding to allow child care providers to take child development classes or earn a degree. That policy may be missing the point, said NIEER’s Barnett.

“You can train people all you want, but if they leave and you’ve got someone new every two years, you’re just throwing your money away,” Barnett said.

Stewart has a soft spot in her heart for the women who cared for Quincy when he was just a few months old and wants caregivers like them to be paid well. Still, she was never completely satisfied with how Quincy spent his day. There was a television at the center which seemed to be on whenever she dropped him off or picked him up, making her worry Quincy was watching a screen instead of spending time interacting with people. She worried, too, that child care workers weren’t holding him enough. She thought they were leaving him in a crib for extended periods of time unless he cried or when it was time to eat. At the time, she didn’t feel she could afford any other place and, since she wasn’t worried about his physical safety, she hoped it would be OK.

In the end, Quincy came out of the experience alright. He’s now an adventurous, talkative 3-year-old. But Stewart hasn’t forgotten her worry about her then-infant and doesn’t want other new moms to face the same concerns. As the Democratic presidential primaries approach, she said she’ll be paying close attention to candidates’ proposals to help lower costs and improve the quality of early childhood education.

“It probably is the most important thing, because when we go to work, we want to make sure our child is safe somewhere all day and we want to make sure we’re able to afford it,” she said.

Quincy, 3, is ready for adventure, as his mom Lynette Stewart looks on.

On a recent afternoon, Quincy zoomed around the local playground, climbing to the top of a tall play structure, careening down the slide and coming by to talk with his mom every few minutes. A year ago, after Stewart’s older son graduated from high school and moved on to community college, she and Quincy moved from Long Beach to Marin City, a small unincorporated community on the outskirts of wealthy Sausalito, in Marin County, north of San Francisco.

Stewart is working processing payroll for a redevelopment company. She makes a little more now — about $48,000 a year — than she did four years ago. But she still pays about $1,350 a month, a third of her income, on child care. She still has little savings. Stewart is optimistic about California’s new efforts, even though by the time some of the changes are put in place, it may be too late to help her and Quincy.

“It will help someone else, so that’s fine,” Stewart said. “There’s lots of struggling moms that need help, so I’m all for it.”

In the meantime, she’s trying to enroll Quincy in state-subsidized preschool and planning to send him to transitional kindergarten at their local public school as soon as he’s eligible. She said she wants him to be as prepared as possible for kindergarten.

* Zaidee Stavely is a reporter for EdSource in Oakland. This story was produced for The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, in collaboration with EdSource, a nonprofit journalism organization reporting on education innovations and reforms in California. 

Story originally published by EdSource.