Governance overlap hurts early learning services

Governance overlap hurts early learning services

(Calif.) Only about a third of the 1 million California children who qualify for subsidized early learning programs actually receive the services, and the quality of what is provided varies greatly statewide, according to a new report released today.

One of the major barriers to improving the system is money, as child care and early learning programs were deeply cut during the recession and remain $500 million below prior highs, the Learning Policy Institute reported.

But there are other challenges as well, including a complex mix of state agencies that share oversight, low-reimbursement rates for providers, cumbersome enrollment practices and low-compensation to workers who actually provide the services.

“High-quality ECE (early childhood education) can put children on the path to success in school and in life,” the team of researchers at the institute said. “But many California children do not have access to ECE, and not all ECE programs in California are of high quality. The patchwork of underfunded programs and services available to young children and their families is incoherent and insufficient. California should reconsider its approach to meeting the needs of children and families so that each piece of the system is of high quality and together they create a coherent system.”

The report also highlighted best practices being used in a number of counties including Contra Costa, Los Angeles, San Mateo and San Luis Obispo. The findings will be showcased at a forum today in Sacramento.

The Learning Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank based in Palo Alto, is led by Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University and chair of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.

Collaborating on the early learning paper was Hanna Melnick, Beth Meloy, Madelyn Gardner, Marjorie Wechsler and Anna Maier.

The first thing that lawmakers should consider to improve the program is to authorize a single state agency to coordinate and manage services. Currently four separate entities share oversight: the California Department of Education, the California Department of Social Services, the California Department of Developmental Services; and First 5 California.

“The governing body should provide guidance on how to effectively coordinate the state’s various ECE programs with each other and with federal and local ECE initiatives, such as Head Start, transitional kindergarten, and special education preschool,” the report suggested.

There should also be statewide efforts to gather data and established goals for student performance based on that information.

“The state could house the governing body for children’s services under a new or existing agency, or it could create a cabinet-level department that works across agencies,” they said.

The analysis also found that the enrollment process was complicated and sometimes discouraged participation. The report suggested that a one-stop shopping concept should be developed to support both parents and providers.

“This one-stop shop would allow families to easily find programs and services that meet their needs and for which they are eligible, and ensure providers are able to fill their available slots to stay in business,” they said. “Parents and providers should be able to access the one-stop shop through an online portal and through existing brick-and-mortar resource and referral agencies where parents and providers meet with ECE program experts in person. It should offer clear information about ECE programs, their quality, and whether they have space available, as well as a simple form for parents to apply for and renew their eligibility for subsidies.”

The Legislature should also look for ways to make ECE more affordable, given that subsidized care is not always directed to the children who need it most, such as children who are homeless or in foster care.

“There are also thousands of children in California whose families earn just over the income eligibility threshold but cannot afford the cost of high-quality ECE,” the report said.

“In San Mateo, where housing costs are notoriously high, one administrator described a mother who received a raise which caused her to lose her child care,” the report said. “As she was unable to pay her rent due to increased child care costs, she subsequently became homeless. Recent legislation to raise the eligibility threshold and allow families to keep their care for 12 months helps offset these situations temporarily, but the “income cliff” still exists, and subsidized care for all families remains scarce in every county.”