In summary

California’s Master Plan for Early Learning and Care is a “starting point,” but many advocates point to serious gaps that need to be fixed.

By Kate Karpilow, Special to CalMatters

Kate Karpilow writes on issues affecting women and families, and authored “Understanding Child Care: A Primer for Policymakers,” Kate.Karpilow@comcast.net.  She previously directed the California Center for Research on Women and Families at the Public Health Institute.

The Newsom administration unveiled its Master Plan for Early Learning and Care last week, smartly timed should a Biden-Harris administration secure funding for their comprehensive caregiving initiative

After a year-plus of research and public input, California’s master plan builds on previous efforts, like the Assembly Speaker’s much-lauded Blue Ribbon Commission report, released in 2019. 

Notably, the master plan is the state’s first early care plan to be championed by a governor.

The plan is a “starting point,” according to the advocates I interviewed – but many pointed to serious gaps that need mending.

What are some of the plan’s strengths? 

They include Paid Family Leave expansion, continued consolidation of early care programs at the Department of Social Services, and adoption of “whole child” and “no wrong door” approaches to streamline family access to public programs. 

Advocates praised the plan for strengthening support for dual-language learners and restraining subsidized early care programs from using suspensions or expulsions, which have harsher impacts on kids of color. 

Signaling readiness for implementation, the Master Plan for Early Learning and Care concludes with action plans; and on Tuesday, state legislators announced a related package of bills.

“Can we slow this train down?”  asked many advocates, who raise questions about fuzzy financing (how do those numbers add up?) and phasing (what happens first?). 

And how can we ensure expensive oversight efforts won’t diminish dollars for family services and providers?

Before policymakers act to implement, these four gaps need mending:

Add a realistic starting point

The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the child care industry, with 2,030 family childcare homes and 390 centers permanently closing doors by late October.

The master plan claims to provide “a roadmap to guide our journey of recovery” but offers no specific recommendations to rebuild from this depleted capacity. 

 “What’s supposed to happen,” asked Max Arias, chairperson of Child Care Providers United, “when schools open, parents return to work and expect child care to be up and running?” 

Emphasize the poverty-prevention power of early care

With its strong focus on quality care, child outcomes and transitional kindergarten, the master plan risks reading like a masters’ thesis in child development. Not a master plan to guide policy for working parents and their kids.

Missing from the plan is high-level acknowledgement that early care can lift families out of poverty. In today’s economy, parents with young kids depend on child care to seek employment and keep their jobs. 

Recommendations from the Speaker’s Blue Ribbon Commission offer a model for fully embracing this dual purpose for California’s system of early care and learning.

Dig deeper on equity

Practitioners and policymakers are actively assessing the impacts of systemic racism on early care’s workforce, compensation, training and culture. 

While the master plan establishes “equity” as a thematic principle and makes some constructive recommendations, the plan still falls short. 

“Wage and rate increases, and benefits for workers who are mostly women of color should be the starting point, especially given their contributions during the pandemic,” said Tonia McMillian, who chairs the workforce subcommittee for the Early Childhood Policy Council.

Modernize the local delivery system

The master plan doesn’t address the outdated infrastructure at the local level where families seek care. Decades-old legislation continues to authorize three overlapping bureaucracies – Child Care Planning Councils, Resource & Referral Agencies, and local First Fives. 

Former Assemblywoman Dion Aroner believes “it’s time to collapse redundant bureaucracies.”

“We need to be clearer about what we expect at the local level in the way of research, funding, training and oversight – and then have one bureaucracy, not several, be responsible for setting policy and delivering services.” 

What’s next? 

My hope is that the governor – whose commitment to a “California for All Kids” appears both deep and genuine – will convene an off-the-record listening session with advocates to hear directly about their concerns and priorities. 

That’s a path forward that could mend the plan’s gaps – and ready California to partner with the Biden-Harris administration.

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Kate has also written about California’s need for a pay equity czar, pregnant women in prisons and jails should be guaranteed a minimum standard of care, and California’s new class of superheroes in the battle against the coronavirus.

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