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Understanding California’s Early Care and Education System

By Hanna Melnick Titilayo Tinubu Ali Madelyn Gardner Anna Maier Marjorie Wechsler
Blog: Untangling California’s Early Care Programs to Improve Access and Quality

Early care and education (ECE) can have a positive effect on many aspects of children’s development, including the language, literacy, mathematics, executive functioning, and social-emotional competencies needed for a smooth transition into kindergarten and later life success. But for many families, high-quality ECE is out of reach. For a family of three earning $40,000 a year, child care costs roughly 20% of household income; for a single parent earning the minimum wage, that number is 50%. California has established a range of programs to support the development of children from birth to age 5, but these programs are uncoordinated, insufficient in scope, and of variable quality. This report provides a comprehensive overview of the state’s ECE system, describing its administration and funding, access to care, program quality, and data limitations.

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Landscape of California’s ECE Programs

California offers an array of state- and federally funded ECE programs for children birth to age 5, particularly those living in or near poverty. The system can be difficult for policymakers, providers, and families to understand because of its complexity.

  • California’s ECE system encompasses a patchwork of programs with distinct purposes and designs. These include school readiness programs such as California State Preschool, Head Start and Early Head Start, and transitional kindergarten, as well as those designed to support working parents, such as the voucher-based Alternative Payment programs and General Child Care and Development. Others include home visiting and special education.
  • Many federal, state, and local agencies administer ECE programs, making the system complex and confusing. Nearly all of California’s ECE programs are partially supported by federal and state funds and, thus, are subject to oversight by multiple authorizing agencies. This complexity can create confusion and increase the burden of administrative and reporting requirements for providers and families.
ECE Programs Animation 1080p v2

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Mirroring the complex system of programs and their administrators, funding for California’s ECE system is likewise complex. Funding levels are not adequate for meeting the needs of children and families.

  • Early childhood programs rely on a complex array of federal, state, and local funding sources. Most of California’s early childhood programs rely on multiple funding sources from both state and federal funding streams. In some regions, local investments play an important role in funding ECE, although the size of these investments is unclear.
  • ECE funding is vulnerable to economic fluctuations, and it has not fully recovered from the recession, despite recent investments. During the Great Recession, publicly funded ECE programs experienced over $1 billion in budget cuts. As a result, approximately 25% of child care slots were cut between 2008 and 2013. Reimbursement rates for providers flat lined, failing to keep up with inflation and cost-of-living increases. Over the last 4 years (2013–2017), state spending on ECE has increased, but overall funding remains below pre-recession levels.
  • Per-child reimbursement varies by program, despite serving similar children, with regional rates differing up to 50%. Each ECE program has a different rate structure for reimbursing providers, including two different methods for paying child care providers. Specifically, some rates reflect the regional cost of living, while others do not. As a result, the state reimburses some programs as much as 50% less than others, even if they meet higher quality standards.
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Access to Care

California’s ECE programs are too limited in scope to serve all of the state’s vulnerable young children, presenting a challenge for families who cannot independently afford the high cost of care, which can be as high as college tuition.

  • Publicly funded ECE programs currently do not have sufficient capacity to serve all of California’s children and families. In 2015–16, only 33% of children under age 5 who qualified for one of California’s publicly funded ECE programs—based on family income and having working parents—were served. Many of these children were enrolled in programs that run for only a few hours each day. The state is making strides toward meeting the needs of 4-year-olds, with roughly 69% of low-income 4-year-olds enrolled in some kind of ECE program. However, nearly 650,000 children birth to age 5 do not have access to the publicly funded ECE programs for which they are eligible.
  • Access to publicly funded ECE programs is extremely limited for infants and toddlers. Approximately 14% of eligible infants and toddlers are enrolled in subsidized programs—a large portion of whom are in family child care homes or license-exempt (friend, family, or neighbor) care. Subsidized ECE for this age group is mostly limited to working families.
  • Full-day programs are particularly limited in scope. Many of California’s largest early learning programs offer mostly part-day slots, despite a demand for full-day services, which is challenging for working families. Furthermore, few of California’s ECE programs are available during the nontraditional hours that many low-income working parents need.

Program Quality

California has inconsistent quality standards and improvement efforts, which are important to ensure that children have access to quality programs.

  • California’s ECE programs are subject to differing regulations, creating programs of varying quality. The standards and quality of California’s ECE programs vary widely in three important aspects: (1) required teacher qualifications, (2) staff-to-child ratios, and (3) curriculum. Many of California’s ECE programs require teachers to have completed some units in early childhood education or child development, but some do not require any advanced coursework. Some, but not all, programs meet or exceed staffing ratios outlined in professional standards. Some school readiness programs must provide a developmentally appropriate curriculum, while other subsidized providers are not legally required to have any curriculum.
  • Program quality is threatened by workforce instability, an outcome of low teacher pay. Wages for child care and preschool providers have historically been very low, with early educators earning roughly half the hourly wage of kindergarten teachers. Nearly half of California’s child care workers rely on some form of public income support and earn a median hourly wage of $11.61, putting them in the seventh percentile of earners in the state. Such low wages, along with job instability and stressful working conditions, affect programs’ ability to recruit and retain well-qualified staff.
  • California has begun to make strides to define and promote quality across programs, but standards are localized and inconsistent. Each of California’s counties has or is building a quality rating and improvement system (QRIS)—a mechanism for defining and improving quality among ECE providers. Counties have autonomy in determining the types of supports or incentives they offer to providers to help them achieve progressively higher levels of quality. Despite the rapid growth of QRIS in California, participation in these voluntary systems is low and work remains to ensure they effectively support quality improvement among providers.

Data Limitations

Policymakers need data to help inform policy decisions; however, some information is currently unavailable.

  • A lack of consistent data makes it difficult to know just how much California invests in ECE and where these investments go. Data limitations make it difficult to evaluate the true adequacy of ECE funding in California, in part due to the dispersed nature of the ECE programs and administrators. For example, children in the ECE system do not have a unique identifier and may be accessing multiple programs but are counted separately each time. It is also unclear how many families are actively seeking support—the actual demand—because there is no centralized waiting list for subsidized ECE programs. Further, state agencies may interpret early childhood funding information differently, yielding conflicting numbers.


Each year, California policymakers make decisions about how and how much to invest in young children. State policymakers should consider the following five questions in light of the findings in this report.

  1. How can California move from a patchwork of disconnected programs to a more unified ECE system? An administrative structure that allows policymakers to see the whole system could enable more informed policy and funding decisions. Whether through a single administrative agency, a formal interagency team, or another structure, a systems perspective would enable California policymakers to create a plan of action that considers the entire ECE landscape, ultimately improving both efficiency and services for children.
  2. How should California increase the availability of high-quality, full-day ECE programs that meet the needs of children and families? Publicly funded ECE programs currently do not have sufficient funding or infrastructure to serve all eligible children. By increasing investments in programs such as General Child Care and Development and Early Head Start, the state could bring additional services to infants and toddlers. To meet working families’ need for full-day programs, the state could increase investments in full-day ECE such as full-day Head Start and full-day state preschool, or support the blending and braiding of funding sources.
  3. How can California more sustainably fund ECE programs? Creating a stable and sufficient source of revenue could help California consistently serve all children who qualify for subsidized ECE, and ensure that programs are financially stable and teachers are paid a fair wage. Whether by adding preschool funding to the Local Control Funding Formula, finding new or alternative funding sources to supplement declining tobacco tax revenues, or by other means, California needs to develop a reliable funding strategy for ECE.
  4. How can California continue to improve quality and supports for all ECE programs? Research shows that high-quality instruction is vital for student success in ECE programs, yet California’s ECE programs vary in their quality standards. Improving the county-led QRISs statewide could lead to higher-quality ECE programs. Whether through incentives for ECE programs to participate in QRIS or mechanisms to assist providers in reaching quality standards, focusing on quality improvement is a promising means for addressing quality.
  5. How can California improve its data systems to inform strategic decision making? Improving ECE data systems would enable California to have a more complete picture of who has access to ECE programs and for how long they are enrolled. The state needs to determine where best to house the information and how to make it available. Such efforts would enable policymakers to better understand their current investment and make well-informed financial and programmatic decisions.

Understanding California’s Early Care and Education System by Hanna Melnick, Titilayo Tinubu Ali, Madelyn Gardner, Anna Maier, and Marjorie Wechsler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.