Early Education and the ‘V’ Word

If you wish to glimpse the future of early education in California, you need look no farther than a pair of bills currently making their way through the Legislature. AB 123, and AB 125, both authored by Assemblymember Kevin McCarty (D. – Sacramento), who also happens to chair the Assembly subcommittee that oversees education finance, seek to substantially expand access to publicly funded preschool programs, bolster early education teachers’ academic requirements and salaries, boost reimbursement rates for providers while better systematizing the manner in which such rates are calculated across geographic areas and provider categories.  Despite additional annual expense to the state estimated at more than $1 billion, both bills won passage out of the Assembly Appropriations Committee last week, and now proceed to floor votes each measure appears likely to pass.

At present, early education in California is provided through what can loosely be labeled a mixed-delivery “system” that includes both public and private providers (some of whom are publicly funded, or subsidized).  Because public funding flows from and/or through a complex web of federal, state, and local sources, providers of early education are often subject to oversight by multiple agencies.  To obtain a visual sense of what this complexity looks like, the Learning Policy Institute (LPI) has created a graphic appearing on page 7 of a 2017 report titled “Understanding California’s Early Care and Education System.”  A brief glance will immediately drive the point home.

While the current expansion initiative is primarily (and admirably) intended to help children from low-income households gain access to early education, AB 123’s Fact Sheet is clear about the measure’s desire to create, “…a more unified preschool system by aligning standards and making it easier to blend State Preschool, Transitional Kindergarten and Head Start to provide high-quality, full-day, full-year preschool that meets the needs of working families.”

It is scarcely a stretch of the imagination to view the groundwork proposed by AB 123 and AB 125 as the foundation for an eventual downward expansion of the state’s K-12 public education system.  One significant indication of such intent lies in a shifting of responsibility for the development and oversight of early education teacher requirements away from the Department of Social Services to the Department of Education and the Commission on Teaching Credentials – state agencies that support California’s K-12 public schools.  Roughly $200 million will be allocated to help current and future early education personnel meet enhanced higher education requirements.

As an analysis of AB 123 prepared by Assembly Education Committee staff notes, some have questioned whether requiring a greater number of early education teachers to possess bachelor degrees produces corresponding benefits for preschool-aged children.  The analysis cites a 2018 report by the National Conference of State Legislators which found that, “While almost all experts agree that more needs to be done to prepare ECE workers and support their ongoing professional development, there is debate among academics, policymakers and practitioners about the optimal level of ECE worker preparation to ensure positive outcomes for children,” adding that some researchers, “…have found that on-the-job training or coaching have greater impacts on positive child outcomes.”

The Committee analysis then pushes back against this caveat, quoting an LPI recommendation:

“California should take steps to build a well-qualified ECE workforce, including increasing expectations and support for educators’ higher education and training, starting with preschool. California should ensure that children of similar age and need in state-subsidized programs have access to educators with comparable education. Research has found that pre-k programs with the strongest sustained impact on child outcomes-including transitional kindergarten-require educators to have a bachelor’s degree and specialized training in ECE. Currently, California’s preschool programs have varying, often low, expectations for staff teaching the same age group. TK, for example, requires a B.A. and a teaching credential, while there is no degree requirement for California’s state preschool program or private preschool programs receiving vouchers.”

Wait a minute!  Vouchers?  Actually, yes.  California allocates both federally- and state-funded early education vouchers to parents, who use them to access participating preschool programs for their eligible children.   In fact, the California Department of Education describes the Alternative Payment Program (which provides early education vouchers to qualifying recipients) as one “intended to increase parental choice and accommodate the individual needs of the family.”

Preschools operated by, or associated with private K-12 schools are also eligible to participate in California’s early education voucher program.  There is, however, a catch.  If a school has a religious orientation it must set aside its identity as a condition of participation, thanks to the state’s constitutional requirement that “No public money shall ever be appropriated for the support of any sectarian or denominational school, or any school not under the exclusive control of the officers of the public schools.”

That’s a shame, given that religious preschools operated by, or associated with CAPSO member organizations currently provide high quality early education to more than 50,000 children.  That’s no small number.  According to LPI estimates, 317,000 children from birth-to-age-5 currently participate in state early education programs, making 50,000 roughly 14 percent of the combined total – nearly double the corresponding figure for private school students currently enrolled in grades K-12.

It’s also a shame because in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court Decision in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, it’s arguably illegal.  At present, California is, in essence, denying a widely available public benefit (participation in an early education voucher program) to religiously oriented providers of early education, by dint of a potential recipient’s religious status.  To participate, such providers would be prohibited from blending religious teachings and practices into their early education programs.  Yet, it is the seamless integration of a religious perspective and secular learning that lies at the heart of religious education.  This means that a religious preschool cannot both accept a state voucher and be a religious preschool.

Of course, if the state moves in the direction of making ever larger swaths of the early education landscape part and parcel of its public education system, the issue will be rendered moot.  As the state builds capacity, vouchers will wane until a tipping point is reached after which an ever diminishing number of private providers of early education will be told that their requests for funding will drain resources from the public system.  Early education, currently so rich in diversity, will become increasingly standardized, as will early educators.  The range of options available to parents will shrink.  And one can only wonder if the kids for whose benefit the current systemic makeover is being engineered will be the better for it.

(Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the policy of the California Association of Private School Organizations.)

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