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Quality and Access Depend on Developing California’s Early Learning Workforce

Quality and Access Depend on Developing California’s Early Learning Workforce
This blog focuses on early learning workforce issues—a key part of California’s early care and education system. Other critical issues, from children’s access to care to system governance, are addressed in LPI’s recent report, Building an Early Learning System That Works: Next Steps for California, written by Hanna MelnickBeth MeloyMadelyn GardnerMarjorie Wechsler, and Anna Maier.

In 1999, New Jersey launched a state pre-k initiative with an ambitious standard: for every teacher to hold a bachelor’s degree and teaching credential, and to be paid the same salary as other public school teachers. At the time, few states had such policies and many of New Jersey’s existing pre-k teachers didn’t have the required qualifications. And yet, within 10 years, nearly every preschooler in New Jersey’s state program was taught by a fully credentialed teacher being paid a public school teacher’s salary.

How did New Jersey manage this transformation? And why should Californians care?

In New Jersey’s case, a court order provided much of the initial impetus for substantial, carefully planned investments that rapidly increased the education levels and pay of pre-k teachers. Although California’s context may differ, policymakers and advocates committed to providing every child with a high-quality early care and education (ECE) program could learn a lot from New Jersey’s example. As Sean Casey, Executive Director of First 5 Contra Costa, explained to a round of applause at a recent convening, “eighty percent of [ECE] quality is workforce.”

If ECE programs are to prepare California’s youngest learners for academic success, the state needs a workforce that is prepared, supported, and compensated for this complex work. Instead, California’s ECE workforce is characterized by low wages and inconsistent requirements for educators. Preschool teachers typically earn about half the salary of a kindergarten teacher, and nearly half of child care workers have salaries so low that they qualify to receive public assistance. These low wages make it difficult to retain teachers and undermine the stable relationships that are key to children's learning and development. And in California, depending on the program, 4-year-olds in the same city or school district can have teachers with radically different levels of education and trainingfrom a high school diploma to a 4-year college degree with a major in early childhood education.

If ECE programs are to prepare California’s youngest learners for academic success, the state needs a workforce that is prepared, supported, and compensated for this complex work.

To rapidly address challenges with the size and capacity of its ECE workforce, New Jersey provided generous scholarships and hired substitutes to enable teachers to take necessary courses. The state worked with colleges and universities to develop a new certification for teachers of young children and provided multiple pathways for educators to advance their knowledge and skills. After teachers were certified, they continued to receive ongoing coaching from experienced teachers and pay equal to that of other public k-12 teachers.

Investing in the quality of pre-k in New Jersey has paid off. The program has boosted children’s literacy, math, and science achievement through 5th grade, and reduced grade retention and special education placements in elementary school. Further, when pre-k programs realize these types of positive outcomes, they also generate future cost savings that benefit society as a whole. In high-quality pre-k, returns of $2 to $4 for each dollar invested are common, and in some cases, returns have been as high as $7 to $10 per dollar invested. These lasting benefits and significant cost savings are only possible, however, if a pre-k program is high quality.

Taking lessons from the New Jersey experience, California can take three big steps to develop its own workforce and boost the quality of children’s ECE experiences:

  1. Increase requirements for teachers’ education and training to ensure they all possess specialized knowledge of child development and age-appropriate instruction.
  2. Continue to raise the reimbursement rates paid by the state to providers of subsidized ECE programs. This would allow providers to begin to raise wages, which is key to recruiting and retaining educators who are well-equipped to teach young children.
  3. Invest in educators’ learning and growth by providing state funding for professional development and educational supports to ensure an adequate supply of highly skilled educators for ECE classrooms.

In crafting these policies, California can build on the expertise and examples of its counties, many of which have local quality improvement initiatives, including efforts to strengthen their ECE workforces. For example, Contra Costa is already providing expert coaching to its ECE teachers. To serve as many teachers as possible—using limited resources—Contra Costa’s coaches provide varying levels of support; some educators and coaches periodically connect over the phone or by email, while others have multiple in-person sessions. The county combines funds from multiple sources to pay for its coaching program. With expanded state investments in educators’ training, counties like Contra Costa could serve more ECE teachers and other counties could follow suit.

In his January budget, Governor Brown proposed to continue increasing reimbursement rates for subsidized ECE providers. This is an important step toward delivering the resources programs need to adequately pay and support their staff, but there is much more work to be done.

California’s leaders also have the opportunity now to develop a comprehensive plan to move the ECE system, including its workforce, forward. The bipartisan Assembly  Blue Ribbon Commission on Early Childhood Education has convened to develop a comprehensive blueprint for a sustainable ECE system, considering all of its component parts. Similarly, many candidates for the state’s next governor have expressed their support for ECE, which may signal forthcoming opportunities to make strategic new investments as part of a longer-term plan. Policymakers can and should seize these openings to place California on a path to affordable, high-quality ECE for all of its children.

Photo by Drew Bird.