California’s Early Learning Momentum Goes on

09.29.2014 | Huffington Post Education | Deborah Kong

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As I dropped my son Robby off at his first day of preschool last month and watched him walk through the door toting his beloved dinosaur lunchbox, I was reminded why I do the work I do. When I head to work and Robby is at preschool, I know that he is safe, loved and learning and developing in a high-quality early learning program. Too many children and families do not have the same opportunities.

The early learning investments made in this year’s state budget are a step toward closing that opportunity gap. California will expand pre-k to 11,500 more low-income 4-year-olds and continue efforts to improve quality. On top of that, the state expressed a long-term commitment to provide every low-income 4-year-old with pre-k in the coming years.

We still have much more work to do, particularly on behalf of our infant and toddlers. Research shows brain development is more rapid during the first three years of life than at any other time, with 700 neural connections created each second. I saw this firsthand when Robby was born, and he began to smile, show curiosity about the world around him and speak his first words.

This period of rapid growth and brain development makes those first three years the optimal time to build the foundation for successful learning and healthy development. At the same time, research shows that toxic stress, which can occur when children experience strong, frequent or prolonged adversity, can disrupt brain development and increase the risk of cognitive impairment and stress-related disease into their adult years.

The 2014-15 budget is an initial down payment that paves the way for us to provide more for our youngest learners in the coming years. Leaders in Washington took notice of California’s investments, with Cecilia Muñoz, assistant to the president and director of the Domestic Policy Council, giving California a shout out: “This school year, 11,500 more low-income children in California will enjoy high-quality preschool thanks to the leadership of Governor Jerry Brown and Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.” With their leadership and the strong commitments from the Assembly and the Legislative Women’s Caucus, we secured the largest early learning investment in California in over a decade. Young children are in a better place than they were last year, and we cannot afford to let the momentum end here.

As an advocate, I am so inspired by this kind of support for early learning. It’s finally getting the recognition it deserves, and we won’t rest until all our children have the high-quality early childhood opportunities they need to succeed in life. The drumbeat of support must go on. Now is the time to double down on our efforts and push for even stronger investments for our children — the future leaders of our state.

We must continue to raise quality in order to provide children with the kind of early experiences that are proven to boost high school graduation, increase college enrollment and completion, reduce crime and prepare a skilled workforce for the 21st century. Unfortunately, California falls short compared to so many other states — we meet 4 of 10 quality benchmarks as defined by the National Institute for Early Education Research. The state’s $50 million investment in supporting quality at the local levels is one important way we can begin to change this.

Still, the programs that serve our young children are not funded at the level they need to be to provide the kind of quality experiences that make a difference for our kids, and we must continue to work to change that.

And we cannot forget about the state’s longer-term commitment to provide every low-income 4-year-old with preschool. This goal is within reach – we now have 31,500 more low-income 4-year-olds to serve if we want to reach every low-income child. Low-income children on average start school 18 months behind their peers, and often stay behind — this is our chance to close the opportunity gap early on.

We will also be focused on increasing investments in our most vulnerable infants and toddlers and improving the quality of the programs that serve our youngest learners. Because we know that educators are at the core of providing the kind of high-quality early experiences that result in improved child outcomes, we must support them so they can promote children’s healthy development and learning. To move in that direction, California can optimize and invest in a comprehensive early childhood education workforce professional development system. This budget’s $25 million investment in professional development is a good first step, though we know far more work remains.

We have an obligation to our young learners to use the current early learning momentum as a springboard for increased investments in their future. We all have a stake in this. By this time next school year, let’s make even greater strides for early learning and our children.

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