May 24, 2023
The Bay Area will be using local tax dollars to expand access to programs that serve young children and to improve the quality of those programs — thanks to two new funding streams approved by voters.
The Oakland Children’s Initiative collects an annual parcel tax to support child care and preschool programs in the city, as well as to provide some money for college access. The fund will raise over $30 million annually. The money will go toward expanding access to high quality preschool, initially prioritizing programs for young children in Oakland Unified School District and the City of Oakland Head Start.
In Alameda County, in which Oakland sits, a half percent sales tax will raise an estimated $150 million a year through the Children’s Health and Child Care Initiative for Alameda County to support increased access to quality care through new enrollment and rate enhancements as well as to fund pediatric health care.
Both initiatives target families with the greatest need and both have workforce provisions that require paying providers at least $15 per hour.
The road to this new funding has been long and winding. It is part of work that began years ago to build a system of care for families in the region. The hurdles have included failures at the ballot box and court fights with anti-tax groups.
Today the Alameda County measure is still pending with the Court of Appeals, though groups are hopeful that it will eventually pass. But the new fund in Oakland is getting ready to send money into its early childhood education system. The need is gargantuan. According to a needs assessment done in 2022 by First 5 Alameda County: “The COVID-19 pandemic decimated an already fragile, underfunded, and fragmented ‘system’ of licensed care.” The share of children ready for kindergarten in the county has dropped to 33 percent since the pandemic. And 85 percent of infants and toddlers in working families do not have access to a licensed child care facility.
Leaders are hopeful that the money will make a real difference in supporting children under five before they get to kindergarten and in ensuring they progress in school as they grow. Funding is also supporting things like coaching, professional development, improvement of facilities, and teacher wages – investments that leaders say will impact all children in the community whether their family is eligible to receive a subsidy or not.
And yet, while advocates in Oakland are excited about the opportunity to finally invest these dollars in ways that will impact families, they emphasize that these local funding streams are not a replacement for the large scale and sustained public investment that is needed in the early care and education system.
Early care and education “should be treated like a public good,” said Kristin Spanos who runs First 5 Alameda County, which will administer both funds. Spanos cautions that layering yet another funding stream on top of an already fragmented financing and delivery system is not a model to hold up as best practice. The system remains very fragmented and Spanos said successfully blending and braiding these systems in ways that are equitable and community-centered takes a great deal of complex administration and still will not come close to meeting the existing need.
“You can’t overstate the complexity and the administrative effort that is needed to pull this off and pull it off well,” she said. “Federal and state governments should really be leading the charge here.”
Jennifer Cabán, who manages implementation of the Children’s Initiative in Oakland, said one of the challenges has been that in the length of time it has taken for the initiative to be approved, the needs of the local early childhood landscape have changed.
“This ordinance prioritizes three- and four-year-olds,” Cabán said. And since 2018, the state has grown public programs for this age group – specifically the expansion of transitional kindergarten, a new grade level for four-year-olds in the state’s public schools and expanded access to the California State Preschool Program for income-eligible three-year-old children and children with disabilities.
In the meantime, the pandemic resulted in closures of many child care homes and centers. Providers retired and new ones could not afford to open in the face of rising rents and lowering revenues. Because of this increased need, particularly in the infant and toddler space, Cabán said, the focus on three- and four-year-olds doesn’t make as much sense for the local community as it did in 2018.
Cabán is working closely with an oversight commission made up of early childhood experts and community members to make sure they are making informed decisions that meet existing community needs.
She emphasized that it is the nature of the current political landscape that people are scrutinizing this money. “We are one of the first cities to implement such an initiative,” she said. “Taxpayers want to know: ‘How are you using my money?’ I’m working diligently to ensure we are being good stewards of these funds.”
Leaders here say this measure is the result of years of work to overcome division in the early care and education community in Oakland and to build trust between all the different providers who serve young children in the city— including family, friend and neighbor care providers, parents, Head Start, community-based organizations, the resource and referral system, and Oakland Unified School District.
Provider and parent advocacy also played a critical role. A 2022 report from the National Institute for Children’s Health Quality finds that organizing and data collection by Parent Voices Oakland, a parent-led grassroots organization that advocates for affordable, accessible, and quality child care, made the passage of the Oakland ballot measure possible. Parent Voices Oakland also worked to support the Alameda County measure.
The group had support from Oakland Starting Smart and Strong, an independent collaborative started in 2014, which works collectively to fight for racial justice and policy change and to strengthen the city’s early care and education ecosystem.
These are the kind of coalitions that make effective collective action possible, more of which experts say are needed to build power and enable communities and families to demand change on a larger scale.
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