Early Education is No Place to Pinch Pennies

By Jennifer Brooks
Children’s Council Chief Program Officer

We get it. It is anyone’s guess as to what the White House and Congress may try next. So, in a context of uncertain federal funding, it’s not surprising that Governor Brown’s revised budget, released earlier this month, is far from extravagant.

But, the question is whether this broad-brush thriftiness is warranted, and more importantly, whether it is a prudent long-term strategy.

We’ve already watched some of the most egregious ideas coming out of Washington rebuffed—see, for example, Congress’ unwillingness to fund a border wall and the failure of anti-immigrant executive orders, or the blowback on efforts to repeal Obamacare. The federal policymaking process is designed to temper extreme ideas, and, so far, it’s working.

Out of fear, we should not sacrifice investment in programs that are proven to contribute to California’s global leadership, now and in the future. One of those investments is in high-quality early care and education.

The latest research shows that high-quality birth-to-five programs for disadvantaged children can deliver a 13% per year return on investment—a rate substantially higher than the 7-10% return previously established for preschool programs serving 3- to 4-year-olds. Kids who participate in high-quality early education have higher academic achievement, less involvement in the criminal justice system and even better health outcomes.

Unfortunately, the families who stand to benefit most from high-quality child care are the ones who can least afford it, which is why the state needs to step-up its investment. Last year, state policymakers made a multi-year commitment to reinvest in early care and education. While we’re pleased that the Governor has decided to honor that commitment, it isn’t nearly enough to restore funding cut during the recession.

Right now, only one in seven children across California who are eligible for assistance can get help paying for child care. And there are many more struggling families who don’t qualify for support because income guidelines have been frozen for more than a decade. What’s more, on January 1, the minimum wage increased by 50 cents; this small change knocked families with two minimum-wage earners out of eligibility for child care assistance—a consequence which policymakers certainly did not intend.

Now it is state legislators’ turn to influence our priorities and investments for next year. Last week the Legislative Women’s Caucus asked the Governor for an additional $500 million to restore child care funding to 2008 levels. We urge legislators to do what’s smart and do what’s right: invest in in our future and vote for a budget bill that restores child care funding and updates income guidelines to reflect today’s economic realities.

Be prudent, be bold, be California.

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