Children are born ready to learn. In the first year of life, the brain doubles, with about 90% of brain growth happening before kindergarten.

However, only 1 in 3 eligible children under 5 years old take part in California’s publicly funded early learning and care programs. To make matters worse this year, 3 out of 4 California parents with children under 5 are worried their education and development will suffer because of the pandemic, according to a recent survey.

That’s why there’s a push in California to get more children, especially infants and toddlers from low-income families, into quality child care at a time when the industry is in crisis because of the pandemic. Senate Bill 50, introduced by state Sen. Monique Limón, D-Santa Barbara, proposes to open access to the state-funded California State Preschool Program (CSPP) and to make it easier for families to access the child care system.

“We know 0-to-5 is such an important, foundational age,” said Limón, “but we also know that it’s difficult for parents to navigate the resources that are available. And unfortunately, with Covid, navigating those challenges has become even more difficult. We really are proposing a way to streamline the resources that are available.”

The Master Plan

The move was given further impetus by the Master Plan for Early Learning and Care, a road map for reshaping early childhood care and education in the state through reforms long championed by child advocates.

“Babies are the least served and the most needy of our children,” said Scott Moore, CEO of Kidango, a nonprofit organization that operates child care centers in the San Francisco Bay Area and a co-sponsor of the legislation. “They are the most vulnerable.”

Moore said the goal is “to build off the Master Plan and create a system that is truly birth-to-5. We want to serve more children who are 0-to-3, that’s where the greatest need is and that’s where the greatest impact is.”

The push in California comes against the backdrop of the ambitious early care agenda being rolled out by President Joe Biden. This week he included a proposal in his $2 trillion infrastructure plan to spend $25 billion “to upgrade child care facilities and increase the supply of child care in areas that need it most.” However, it is far from clear which parts of Biden’s plan will make it through Congress, and advocates say that California must move forward on its own, regardless of what happens.

Expanding transitional kindergarten

The state Senate bill is a companion bill to Assembly Bill 22, which would expand transitional kindergarten to more 4-year-olds. Right now, only 4-year-olds born in the narrow window between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2 are eligible for transitional kindergarten, a bridge between preschool and kindergarten.

This proposed law tries to better serve children who are age 3 and under. However, early childhood advocates say the legislation would greatly benefit infants and toddlers even if there is no growth for the transitional kindergarten program.

Babies and toddlers are often underserved in a child care system that was straining to meet demand even before the pandemic. This is a critical issue because research shows high-quality birth-to-5 programs can be transformative, particularly for low-income children. Child care is far more than just babysitting, advocates say, it’s building the architecture of the brain at a pivotal stage in construction.

‘The reform is definitely significant’

“The reform is definitely significant. The attempt to bring the 0-5 spectrum under one umbrella is important for continuity, and it’s especially important for quality. For too long we’ve had a bifurcated system where people have somehow decided that you don’t start ‘formally learning’ until you turn 3,” said Shantel Meek, founding director of the Children’s Equity Project, an advocacy/research organization based at Arizona State University. “Brain science unequivocally disproves that notion.”

Babyhood is a critical period for cognitive development. Yet, largely because of the greater attention they require, it’s often most difficult to find care slots for infants.

The bill would also try to simplify the process of getting a coveted subsidized child care slot by reducing some of the bureaucratic hassles of applying, which can involve a daunting pile of paperwork.

“This is an effort to reduce the complexity of the eligibility requirements for families and provide continuity in children’s placements,” said Deborah Stipek, a professor in the Stanford Graduate School of Education, and an early education expert. “The bill addresses a lot of current problems of fragmentation of services, complexity of eligibility requirements and funding instability.”

The proposed legislation would make it easier to apply for subsidized care as well as give families two years, instead of annually, before they have to be recertified that they are eligible. Also, once a family is found eligible for one low-income assistance program, they would be automatically eligible for others with the same criteria.

Making ‘it easier for parents’

“We’re trying to make it easier for parents,” said Patricia Lozano, executive director of Early Edge California, a nonprofit organization that is co-sponsoring the bill. “So if you already qualify for CalFresh or Medi-Cal, then you automatically will qualify for subsidized care, so you don’t have to apply here and there.”

Given the high costs of child care in California, many families are hard-pressed to foot the bill. The median annual cost of care for an infant in a licensed child care center is over $15,000, reports show. That’s a prohibitively high price considering that more than a third of parents recently surveyed said they have skipped meals or had to cut back on food for the children as a result of the pandemic.

Under this proposal, child care centers and family caregivers would also have fewer hoops to jump through to be reimbursed by the state, advocates say, as well as the flexibility to care for a greater range of kids.

“The current system can be daunting for providers and making this change will hopefully reduce our time spent on filling out forms and making phone calls,” said Makinya Ward, an administrator at Kids Konnect preschool, which runs child care centers in San Mateo and Alameda counties.

Reducing some of the stress and strain on child care providers is a key concern as the pandemic has pushed the field into crisis mode. It has been a time of high risk for low pay for many in the early childhood workforce. About 17% of the state’s early childhood educators live in poverty, research shows, which is almost seven times the poverty rate for the state’s K-8 teachers. Help can’t come fast enough for child care workers, advocates say.

“While strengthening the early childhood education system for families is a huge part of the puzzle and I see this reflected in the bill, we also have to hone in on the working conditions of those serving children and families,” said Ashley C. Williams, senior policy analyst at UC Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Child Care Employment. “We can expand access for families, but if supporting and ensuring a living wage for our workforce is not an equal part in that vision, it will crumble.”

A struggle for many child care centers

Many centers are struggling to remain open during the pandemic. A recent national survey found that 56% of child care centers report losing money every day they remain open. The number of family child care homes has long been dwindling, decreasing by a third between 2008 and 2019, according to the California Child Care Resource & Referral Network. The pandemic added to the decline, with almost 7,000 family child care homes shutting their doors between March and December last year, 2,443 permanently, according to the California Department of Social Services.

To make matters worse, many child care providers are also concerned that expanding transitional kindergarten would undermine their business model by taking away the 4-year-olds. This bill would help fill those spots with infants and toddlers, experts say, which would help stabilize the industry. Transitional kindergarten programs offer learning and social activities for 4-year-olds.

Early childhood advocates also say this bill will help close some of the equity gap between parents of means and parents who are struggling to survive. Many parents, particularly mothers, have had to choose between holding down their jobs and tending to their young children, or helping with remote learning, during the pandemic. The result has been nearly 3 million women pushed out of the workforce, a shift which may well have lasting impacts on family welfare.

The epidemic has revealed the essential nature of the child care industry, advocates say, as a pillar of economic stability and educational achievement. Increasing access to early learning and care is vital to the state’s economic recovery.

“The child care subsidy program is supposed to provide a semblance of stability of care for young children and for parents and their employment,” said Meek, who was a senior policy adviser for early childhood development in the Obama administration. “All of this burden of participation in the program falls the hardest on our low-income families, and this is an important step to alleviate some of that burden.”

* Story originally published by EdSource.