With the passage of the 2015-16 budget, California policy makers provided a significant boost to Early Childhood Education (ECE). The new budget provides more than $300 million and adds more than 16,300 additional spaces for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. The budget also includes rate increases to more adequately cover the cost of care, adds funding for Quality Rating Improvement System grants to improve care, and increases early intervention services and access for young children with special needs. This is welcome news.
Yet, the task remains unfinished. While California’s spending on ECE will be about $2.47 billion this year, this amount still is far short of 2008 levels. As a result, many of California’s youngest children remain un-served or under-served. For ECE advocates, increasing funding levels to make California a more child-friendly state points in two somewhat contradictory directions. ECE advocates can continue to press for more targeted ECE funds, and, 2) they can work to leverage opportunities for new funding through the state’s new education finance system, the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF).
The LCFF is a dramatic shift in the way school districts are funded and in the way they are able to spend their funds. The LCFF provides local communities the opportunity to shape their own educational priorities, as reflected in locally developed Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAPs). The ECE community has begun to weigh in on local spending priorities and examples slowly are beginning to emerge that indicate ECE needs are being reflected in a small number of district LCAPs.
Still, in order to accomplish its goal of increasing funding for early childhood education programs, the ECE community must address two critical issues. First, ECE is one of the few remaining categorical programs. School districts continue to receive earmarked dollars for early childhood education programs. Thus, through ECE advocates maintain these dollars are insufficient to take care of the needs, school districts typically view ECE as “covered” in terms of funding. In addition, many district leaders are not convinced that early childhood education is their responsibility. Research suggests is penny-wise and pound-foolish; the quality of a child’s early learning experiences has a significant impact on prospects for success in school and later in life. Nevertheless, the “not my responsibility” approach remains fairly common.
Second, the ECE community is not of one mind about the wisdom of ceding responsibility for ECE programs to school districts that often are more focused on academics than child development. Thus, building a consensus among the ECE leadership about school districts’ role in ECE is as necessary as convincing communities of the wisdom of ECE investments. Resolving these issues will not be easy.
The LCFF’s entry into the world of small “d” democracy—requiring that parents and other stakeholders be engaged in shaping the way district dollars are allocated—coupled with funding targeted to the state’s most needy young people provides a unique opportunity for meaningful conversations on behalf of all of California’s children. These conversations need to be accompanied by a recognition that despite the dramatic increase in education funding this year, there still is not enough money for all categories of children to get all they need. The promise of the LCFF is that it affords local communities, not just state policy makers and district officials, the chance to address the question: What are our collective goals and priorities and how do we most fairly and effectively allocate our resources? The ECE community has the opportunity to join this conversation with a distinctive voice and help expand support for ECE in a lasting way.