May 29, 2009
California can improve its early childhood education system in an era of fiscal crisis and lay the foundation for improving access and quality in the future when more resources are available, according to a new RAND Corporation study.
Making low-cost improvements to the system now by adopting efficiencies and creating flexibility to better use existing resources would likely allow more needy children to enroll in government-supported preschool programs and position the system to move toward higher-quality programs once new funding becomes available, according to the report.
"There are many low-cost or no-cost things that California can do to improve its early childhood education system and make it easier for parents to use," said Lynn Karoly, the report's lead author and a senior economist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. "Our report is a blueprint for fixing many of the shortcomings we know are in the system."
The recommendations are from the last in a series of reports from the California Preschool Study, a comprehensive analysis of California's publicly supported early childhood education efforts conducted by RAND. The study was requested by state policymakers to help them consider options for reforming or expanding preschool education.
As part of the work, RAND cataloged how the state subsidizes and delivers early childhood education. Researchers estimated about $1.9 billion was spent on subsidizing early childhood care and education for preschool-aged children in California during 2005-06. In addition, the research found there is variety among the programs, as well as uneven and often poor quality.
Earlier findings suggest that improving and expanding preschool programs can better prepare children for school and help close the academic achievement gap faced by many children by the second and third grades—primarily African-American and Latino children, as well as those from socioeconomically disadvantaged families.
Previous reports also highlight shortcomings in California's early childhood education system, including that only about half of the eligible preschool age children are able to participate in state-supported programs because funding is too low. Researchers say the complexity of the current public system makes it costly for providers to administer, challenging for families to navigate, and difficult for policymakers and the public to evaluate.
Karoly's concluding study suggests the state focus its improvement and expansion efforts on making sure that high-quality services reach the children who can benefit the most, including 4-year-olds from families with income up to 240 percent of the poverty level and 3-year-olds from families with income below the poverty level.
She offers a series of shorter-term actions that could help create a more-efficient and better-coordinated preschool system in California. Most of the changes can be adopted with limited new resources.
Among the recommendations are modifying contract rules for government-subsidized programs, a move that can help enroll more children by reducing the amount of available funds that go unused.
Other shorter-term recommendations include streamlining the enrollment process, developing a quality rating system, conducting more routine licensing inspections and producing Web-based reports that would be easily accessible to parents.
"These changes can help make the existing money go further and help to better prepare more young children for academic success," Karoly said. "They also can help prepare the system to further expand and improve once there is more money available."
The report also includes strategies for longer-term improvements to California's preschool system that would both increase the number of children in state-supported programs and raise the quality of early learning programs for all children. These items can be pursued once more public money is available.
Quality improvement efforts should target those features that are most important for child development and later academic success, according to the report. Policymakers should adopt a multi-pronged approach that includes quality measurement and monitoring, financial incentives and greater support for providers to improve quality, and evaluations of child development outcomes.
Although California faces severe budget problems in the near term, some additional money should become available for preschool programs from the federal economic stimulus that was approved this year by Congress.
Karoly said some of that money might be used as a down payment on the report's recommendations that require new resources, such as implementing a quality rating and improvement system or improving the training of the state's preschool workforce.
The report cautions that efforts to expand the state's subsidized preschool system must take into account its place in the larger child care and education system. Some reforms, such as improving help for English learners, might be best addressed in tandem with the state's K-12 school system.
Ultimately, California will need to create an integrated and coordinated birth-through-high school, preschool-through-high school or preschool-through-college system, according to the report.
The report, "Preschool Adequacy and Efficiency in California: Issues, Policy Options, and Recommendations," is available at www.rand.org.
Funding for the project is provided by The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, W. K. Kellogg Foundation, The Pew Charitable Trusts through the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), The W. Clement and Jessie V. Stone Foundation, and Los Angeles Universal Preschool (LAUP).
The project has been guided by an advisory group of academic researchers, policy experts, and practitioners.
The California Preschool Study is conducted through RAND Labor and Population, which examines issues involving U.S. labor markets, the demographics of families and children, social welfare policy, the social and economic functioning of the elderly, and economic and social change in developing countries.