Gov. Gavin Newsom – warmly enveloped by his wife and four children – sketched a bold and colorful pastiche of programs last week for lifting California families:
• Six months of paid time off work for parents of newborns.
• Quick pediatric care for infants suffering from hindered growth.
• High-quality pre-kindergarten for youngsters in families struggling to make ends meet.
• Kindergarten that runs full-day to buoy working parents and kids’ early learning.
No governor has grasped the evidence so firmly: Nurturing the health and cognitive growth of children before they start school yields the strongest returns to public investment. Suffering from dyslexia as a child, Newsom felt the pain of falling behind at school and in everyday life.
The governor’s compelling aspirations are pioneering as well, sending to lawmakers a rough blueprint for a $4.3 billion village that snags design features from Europe but has never been built in the United States.
It remains a work in progress. Newsom must now work with legislative leaders, children’s advocates and labor chieftains to mix the bricks and mortar, bringing his pro-family village to life. They already face prickly dilemmas:
Finding sustainable funding. Gov. Newsom’s inspired vision relies mostly on one-time funding. He’s rightfully jittery over a possible recession triggered by President Trump’s needless trade war with China and European allies.
Still, the governor projects overflowing state coffers, with a $21.5 billion budget surplus by mid-year. Meanwhile, millions of families are struggling to find affordable child care. Many quit their jobs after realizing the cost of day care exceeds their paycheck.
The risk is that state politicians become penny wise and pound foolish. They keep pumping more dollars into public schools and universities, promising to narrow achievement gaps. Yet, we know that disparities in learning are well in place by age 3.
Which families to lift? A half-century of research also tells us that young children from poor families gain most from quality preschool. So Newsom and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon wisely lean toward first equalizing access for low-income families.
But the governor’s priciest pitch – to give all parents with newborns more weeks at home, off work – would operate like Robin Hood in reverse, taxing the working classes to subsidize well-off families.
A quarter million moms and dads each year draw paid family leave, up to eight weeks after a birth, solely financed by a 1 percent tax on our collective earnings. Employers pay nothing. Newsom wants to lengthen paid leave to 26 weeks, costing about $2.5 billion.
The rub is that well-off parents (earning over $118,000 yearly) pay a lower effective tax rate than true middle-class families (making $71,000). Then, the wealthy draw out richer benefits when taking leave. Newsom must settle on which families he aims to lift.
Widen family access and elevate quality? Just 48 percent of all families with a 3- or 4-year-old can find an affordable preschool slot. Expanding supply is key.
But pre-kindergarten packs a weak punch when quality remains low, say when a single teacher must attend to many toddlers, or caregivers lack the sensitivity and cognitive engagement that elevates kids’ growth.
Most pre-kindergarten teachers barely earn a livable wage, as centers struggle to survive without raising fees charged to parents. Newsom includes only a cost-of-living increment for public preschools, meaning that miserly wages will persist.
Stretching the state’s $1 billion transitional kindergarten to more 4-year-olds could expand access and raise quality simultaneously, and be permanently funded via California’s funding guarantee for K-12.
Steering policy in the dark. As child and family programs grow, we know little about which actually work.
Leaders in four counties have conducted rigorous studies, verifying the benefits of quality pre-kindergarten. But taxpayers spend over $1 billion for child care vouchers, which allow parents to pay warm and fuzzy grandparents – or expedient boyfriends – to care for infants and toddlers, yielding unknown effects for children.
So, as we build this essential village together – uniting parents, caregivers and teachers – Newsom might insist on simple data and tough-headed evaluation. Otherwise, his uplifting aspirations will outpace long-term results for kids and families.
Professor Bruce Fuller runs UC Berkeley’s Early Childhood Think Tank.
Opinion: Gov. Newsom’s early childhood plans face dilemmas