Saturday, May 5, 2012

Short-Changing the Future: Early Childhood Education and the Budget in California


It’s no secret that the budget cuts being forced on Californians by the minority Republican Party and our gimlet-eyed Governor Jerry Brown (who seems to take a kind of grim satisfaction from the austerity regime he has charged himself with implementing) will impact the poorest, the weakest, and most economically-marginal amongst us the most.  Those who depend on public social support and public health programs funded by the state will be severely impacted.  As will students at our colleges and universities who, in transitioning between school and work, are particularly vulnerable. 

Hitherto shielded by the strong arm of the CTA, even our public schools, long the last redoubt symbolising our commitment to the public good, are being assailed.  For years, schools have been scrambling each summer to determine how many of the teachers who got pink slips will actually get the boot, and what this will mean in terms of restructuring teaching teams, sending veteran junior high teachers down to elementary school classrooms (and vice-versa), and asking veteran language arts teachers to create a curriculum for math class in a matter of a week.  Governor Brown’s handling of education funds during the last year has been one long, mad scramble that has only increased the uncertainty.

But the cuts to education aren’t restricted to higher education and K-12 schools.  Early Childhood Education, the newest, some might say most important sphere, and the most vulnerable because least integrated into the state’s education structure, is also taking a hit.  Twenty per-cent of public funding that CalWorks and state-funded early childhood education depend on will be cut.  This means that 74% of those individuals benefiting from CalWorks will feel the pain.  Those dependent on state funded early childhood education will find it increasingly difficult to be eligible for funds, as they would be required to be at 200% of the federal poverty limit and also working 30 hours per week to be eligible for state preschool slots.*  The Legislative Analyst’s Office provides good data on where “savings” from these cuts will come from, but very little sense of what the cuts will mean for the families on the receiving end of the austerity regime, or in terms of employment for early childhood education teachers.

Campus child development centres are coming under particular fire as the Governor and the right-wing goon-squad blast away at the education sector.  These centres, which train and mentor aspiring teachers to rigorous standards (unlike the private education sector, where standards might vary widely if they exist at all), in addition to providing care, will be badly hit by the proposed CalWorks cuts, by the cuts in state preschool dollars, and by the budget cuts which are being forced on the campuses which run these centres (California Community College, California State University, and University of California campuses).  These cuts are a kind of double-whammy: they mean fewer preschool slots for children, and fewer trained teachers.  They mark a troubling step backwards. 

And as with cuts elsewhere, they will actually generate unemployment at a time when Californians are already struggling.  The people too-often considered to be babysitters by the public are actually acting on growing evidence in the form of rigorous studies showing what should basically be intuitive: that the earlier we start with children, the more likely they are to find security and success over the long haul, and the better this is for all of us.

For example, read what A Portrait of California has to say about the impact of early childhood education: it leads to “tripled rates of homeownership, reductions in teen pregnancy and arrests by half, far higher high school graduation rates, better workforce performance, and higher earnings through one’s working life” (94).  The report suggests that “a quality preschool for three- and four-year-old children has been shown to be the single most important intervention to close the enormous school readiness gaps in the country today”.

A Portrait of California makes support for high quality preschool education one of their twelve priority recommendations for the state, and has this to say: “Only 42 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds attend preschool in Struggling California [one of their indices], compared to nearly 70% in Silicon Valley Shangri-La.  A high quality preschool is the most cost-effective education intervention, yielding up to $17 worth of benefits for every $1 invested” (137).

This means that even for those too utilitarian to see the intrinsic good in providing care and education for children with an aim to helping to create successful adults, and who want a return on their investment, there’s good news.  Moreover, children who have benefited from early childhood education are more likely to get through school on time, more likely to finish college or university in four years, are less likely to find themselves in the kind of economic straits which might lead to them falling foul of the law, and are therefore more likely to land a secure job, meaning that we can broaden the base of people who contribute to sustaining our social welfare system at the same time that we lower the number of people dependent upon it, thereby lessening the investment required by each contributor.  In the long term, there are no losers.

In a day and age when two working parents or a single working parent are a nigh-universally necessary norm, the existence of a network of schools for young children affords parents greater flexibility in working hours and conditions, leading to more economically stable homes, which in turn make for a better home life for students, and leads to them being more likely to excel at school, be able to attend college, get a good job...  You get the picture.

But as elementary as this all undoubtedly seems, our political representatives are failing to act on it.  In addition to the increasingly routine round of cuts to education, the Governor placed trigger cuts in our 2012-13 budget which, thanks to his deliberately overoptimistic revenue estimates, stand a good chance of doing further damage to the education sector.  He’s also promoting the kind of voucher system for the pre-K sector that voters have repeatedly rejected for K-12. 

The Governor has attempted to disguise his brutal cuts as reforms, and his rhetoric about making care leaner and meaner and more efficient will undoubtedly prove compelling to some.  But this is not real reform, driven by a policy ambition or a desire to better the lives of children in our state.  It would be a fine thing, for example, to make early childhood education as streamlined and as established a part of our children’s experience as K-12 education.  But Brown’s ‘reforms’ are a series of cuts, made willy-nilly, and then pieced together after the fact, and sent out into the world masquerading as thoughtful policy.  They are driven by our mangled budget process which, thanks our mangled political structure, all but mandates vicious cuts across the board.  This is bad policy-making (indeed, it scarcely merits the descriptor), and the results will perhaps be even sadder than cuts in other sectors because they will cripple children’s fortunes at an even younger age.   At a time when we should be shoring up the prospects of children in our society, we are instead undermining them.  And in undermining them, we are chipping away at the very foundations of our society.  Brown, Republicans in the state legislature, and self-centred Californian voters should all think twice about what they’re doing to our education sector.

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* “The 2012-13 Budget: The Governor’s CalWORKS and Childcare Proposals”.  Legislative Analyst’s Office. 

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