A new report from Children Now, a California-based children’s advocacy group, paints a dismal picture of how the state’s children are faring. Since 2006, Children Now reports, 100,000 additional California children have fallen into poverty, and 680,000 have lost health insurance provided by their parents’ employers. Further, at the very time that the state’s families need a strong safety net, a state fiscal crisis has brought about cuts to children’s health and education programs. In many cases, those cuts have further undermined programs and services that were already inadequate.
The state’s failure to care for, invest in, and educate them has serious negative implications for its future outlook. And since one in every eight American children lives in California, these shortcomings have national implications.
In its report, Children Now gives California’s early childhood programs a grade of “C,” which, sad to say, is one of the higher grades the state receives. Although California suffers from a shortage of child care slots, some of the nation’s least affordable child care, and tremendous variation in the quality of early care and education programs, the state has also—as a recent New America Foundation report noted—made progress in recent years to improve early care and education, even during tough budget times. California has passed legislation to consolidate and streamline its numerous preschool programs, maintained investments in “First 5” programs that provide early learning and other services for young children and their families, established a State Advisory Council on Early Childhood Education and Care, and is taking steps towards implementing a Quality Rating and Improvement System for childcare providers. The challenge for the state now is to sustain and build on these investments. If California can keep moving forward, it has an opportunity to both improve outcomes for its youngest children and benefit from federal funds that may become available through the proposed Early Learning Challenge Grant program. But if the state’s policymakers don’t hold the line on early childhood investments, they could find themselves ineligible for the new federal funds.
Children Now gives the state gets its best rating for Afterschool Programs, based on the strength of its “Prop 49” program, which providers state-funded after school for some 500,000 students statewide.
But the state gets its worst grade from Children Now for its K-12 education system. Fifty years ago, California had one of the nation’s best public education systems, but decades of underinvestment and poor policy choices have left the state’s public schools in dismal shape—and with dismal results to show for it. California ranks 47th among the states in per-pupil education funding, and is at or near the bottom in student outcomes, too. And California’s schools have taken some of the hardest hits in the current economic crisis, with public education spending down 6% since the 2007-08 school year. To improve California’s dismal education system and outcomes, Children Now recommends: 1) revamping the state’s school finance system to make it more equitable, transparent, and provides sufficient resources to deliver a quality education; 2) recruiting, retaining and equitably distributing effective teachers for the state’s schools, and 3) building a comprehensive “cradle to career” longitudinal student data system that could track students from preschool through higher ed and inform better education policy and practice in the state.
Early Ed Watch particularly appreciates the Children Now report’s emphasis on improving integration and alignment between the early childhood and K-12 education systems in the state. In some ways, it’s encouraging that California’s early childhood education system doesn’t rate as poorly as its public schools. But if children leave early childhood programs to go on to lousy public schools, the state’s early childhood investments will bear far less fruit than they ought to. Unfortunately, pre-K advocates and school reformers in the state have tended to operate on separate tracks—rarely collaborating and with little understanding of one another’s worlds. That Children Now focuses on the need for reform in both early childhood and K-12 is clear step in the right direction.