California's Master Plan for Early Learning and Care

Blog Post
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March 15, 2021

“We entered this pandemic with a care economy suffering from decades of underinvestment….So as we respond to this pandemic, we stay fixated on closing unacceptable disparities,” declared California Governor Gavin Newsom in his State of the State address delivered March 9, 2021. A key piece of the Newsom administration’s strategy is supporting equity of opportunity for young children. Since taking office, Newsom garnered praise as a champion for children including early moves to appoint well-respected early childhood experts to key roles and proposing unprecedented investments in early childhood in his budgets. His administration’s latest efforts in December 2020 and January 2021 include the release of the The Master Plan for Early Learning and Care: Making California for All Kids as well as his 2021-2022 budget. The Master Plan sets a strategic vision and roadmap for the next ten years. At a time when the state faces staggering disparities exacerbated by the pandemic, the Master Plan is a strong commitment to and bold vision for children.

Released by the California Health and Human Services Agency, the Master Plan was created by experts, practitioners, and the public. It is organized into four goals: unify and strengthen programs and services to support children's learning and development; support children’s learning and development by enhancing educator competencies, incentivizing and funding career pathways, and implementing supportive program standards; unify funding to advance equity and opportunity; and streamline early childhood governance and administration to improve equity. The ideas will be phased in over time and require an estimated $2 to $12 billion in public and private investments.

Patricia Lozano, Executive Director of Early Edge California, served as an external contributor. In an interview about the Master Plan, Lozano said the plan is “a great start. Here are some key recommendations that came from an excellent group of experts, key stakeholders, and practitioners, and now we need to think about the 'how'." Lozano expressed excitement for the inclusion of dual language learners throughout the plan. She saw particular strength in how the plan considers all ages of young children from prenatal through school entry and all of the settings in which they are cared for. “What I love, too, is that they thought about family, friend, and neighbor care; family child care providers; and preschool. All—because it is the whole system.”

California’s early childhood system is notorious for being very complex and disjointed, leading to inequitable access to quality services for families. The Master Plan seeks to simplify and align programs and funding sources with the goal of providing a streamlined and seamless experience for families. Currently, families apply separately for education, health, and social services despite similarities in program eligibility criteria. The Master Plan proposes greater access and stability for families, while reducing administrative costs for agencies and service providers, by utilizing categorical and presumptive eligibility as well as extending eligibility periods for families facing exceptional challenges.

Key to this move is creating an integrated data system across agencies that serve families. And, once the data system exists, it can be used for continuous quality improvement including a focus on equity. In an interview about the Master Plan, Kim Pattillo Brownson, an appointee to California’s Early Childhood Policy Council and contributor to the Master Plan, noted, "Having racially disaggregated data for early care and education would be really beneficial. Knowing the racial disparities in terms of who has access to licensed programs, who is most likely to use exempt programs, CalWORKS, state preschool, Transitional Kindergarten, I think is instructive for thinking about what types of supports we are providing to families and whether there are differences based on race."

One bold recommendation is a unified system of state-funded pre-K with universal pre-K for four-year-olds and targeted pre-K for three-year-olds who are income-eligible or have a disability. The Master Plan calls for enhanced standards that will apply to all organizations providing pre-K services including school districts, centers, and family child care. Pattillo Brownson said, “Having a call out for targeted preschool for three-year-olds who are low income is exciting for lifting up equity. The data is really clear that low-income kids need early learning experiences and having two years of pre-K for low-income kids makes a huge difference.”

As a first step toward realizing universal pre-K, Governor Newsom’s most recent budget as well as bills introduced in the legislature include big investments in expanding Transitional Kindergarten (TK)—a grade level in the state’s public schools for four-year-olds with fall birthdays that has been in place since 2010. The governor’s budget offers one-time incentives for programs that are ready to expand TK to do so. Advocates like Lozano see dual possibility with this strategy, “We are starting with universal pre-K….It is something we can get done in the next few years….If we are able to fund four-year-olds through the K-12 system, or move them to the K-12 system, there is going to be more funding available for infants and toddlers.”

As California shifts more three- and four-year-old children to the public school system, child care centers and homes will shift to serving more infants and toddlers. It costs more per child to care for infants and toddlers because of low adult-to-child ratios and small group sizes. Leaders in California will need to increase reimbursement rates for infants and toddlers and adopt other strategies for supporting child care providers’ solvency. One strategy already included in the Master Plan is support for shared services networks that reduce administrative expenses for family child care homes which are often parents’ preferred setting for their infants and toddlers.

Expanding access to early learning services requires the accompanying strategy of preparing and retaining educators with the skills and competencies to support children’s healthy development. The Master Plan has a robust set of workforce strategies including enhancing educator competencies, incentivizing and funding career pathways, and implementing supportive program standards across settings. Anchored in recommendations from Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation and Power to the Profession, the Master Plan provides an interesting example of putting research-based solutions into practice.

Key to attracting and retaining a qualified workforce is adequate compensation. The Master Plan includes a tiered rate reimbursement to incentivize quality improvements and increase teacher pay. California is playing catch-up on a trend that started in the 1990s—42 states already have tiered rates of reimbursement. According to an Urban Institute study, “tiered reimbursement is effective at raising provider quality and helping families enroll in higher-rated programs.” The Master Plan infers that higher reimbursement rates will lead to higher teacher salaries, but new policy or regulation may be needed to ensure the increase in subsidy results in increased compensation.

The Master Plan is a powerful strategy for improving opportunities for California’s youngest children. There is much to do to realize its vision. “I’m excited about the next steps, and it is up to us to really push for making it an action plan too through legislation, through budget, through working with partners to really think about what is best for families and kids,” said Lozano. And she is optimistic, “It may seem like a lot, but I think if we really come together, we can make this happen.”

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