Early learning plan builds on diverse delivery system, calls for more oversight

An advance draft of a much-anticipated plan for guiding early childhood learning in California recommends the state take steps needed to broaden access to quality programs, create pathways for workforce development and better engage families.

The report, to be finalized by June, has drawn on input from nearly 3,000 early childhood development professionals statewide, and when completed will fulfill a federal requirement set out in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

But members of the State Advisory Council on Early Learning and Care said at a meeting Wednesday the plan envisioned so far will go well beyond federal mandates, contemplating a variety of issues that impact the quality of education for the state's three million children under the age of five.

California's Council, from what I've seen, is a national leader in thinking comprehensively about its recommendations," said Elliot Regenstein, senior vice president of advocacy and policy at Ounce of Prevention, a Chicago nonprofit supporting the work of the council. "This plan will be something that the federal government can look at and say, they've designed something - now, how do we help them build it.'

"When the federal government sees that California and other states are taking ownership of these issues, it creates an opportunity for a different kind of partnership than would have been possible absent these grants," he said.

With reams of research showing that the first three years of life are critical to long-term brain development, more and more states are looking at ways to improve and promote early childhood learning. It was against this backdrop in 2009 that the Obama administration, through the ARRA, awarded federal funding that called for the creation of a state-appointed advisory panel to assess existing early childhood learning and care programs, and make recommendations for improvements.

The 12-member State Advisory Council on Early Learning and Care has based its work on a whole-child' approach, recommending programs and policies that address existing deficiencies - limited access to care, weak licensing standards and lax teacher qualifications - and build on existing strengths: a diverse service delivery system that fills in gaps and provides support to children and their families, as well as a passionate and dedicated early childhood education workforce.

California is home to 13 percent of the nation's children under five years old, yet it receives just $500 million in federal funds for its state-run preschool and childcare services, according to a Department of Finance spokesman. The remainder of the state's $2.2 billion early learning and care budget comes from its general fund and from Prop. 98 monies and provides spots for 345,000 mostly low-income children.

While there is talk among stakeholders and council members about the need for the state to restore some $900 million in lost early learning funding since 2008, there is also relief that no further cuts are suggested in Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed 2013-14 budget.

Focused on principles, rather than programs, the early learning plan is built on four key system drivers,' seen as critical to its success: access to quality early learning, workforce development, family and community engagement and continuous program-level improvement.

Within each of those segments are numerous recommendations, based upon stakeholder input from surveys, interviews, regional workshops and more than 50 local and virtual meetings.

Among the report's various recommendations:

  • Identify and address children's needs earlier in their lives through ongoing, developmentally appropriate assessments;

  • Provide professional development to teachers to support their effective use of assessments;

  • Create a statewide, tiered-reimbursement Quality Rating and Improvement System to evaluate and reimburse programs based on five quality elements: ratios and group size, teaching and learning practices; family involvement; staff education and training; and program leadership;

  • Develop a well-defined ECE career pathway and associated credentials that are aligned with the Early Childhood Educator Competencies;

  • Strengthen supports for teachers pursuing additional education and training;

  • Create and implement a P-16 data system including unique child identifiers;

  • Create child care-friendly land use policies and procedures that encourage child care facility development, and include preschool facilities in the next statewide education facilities bond;

  • Require programs to submit plans for how they will partner with families and meet their cultural and linguistic needs.

To view the current draft of the report, visit: http://www.cde.ca.gov/sp/cd/ce/sacmeeting1302013.asp

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