Taking the stage at Hillview Middle School in Menlo Park on Sunday, six candidates for the 13th Senate district weighed in on their plans for addressing the numerous early childhood education problems facing California.
Democrats Josh Becker, Mike Brownrigg, Sally Lieber and Shelly Masur, Republican Alex Glew and Libertarian John Webster took turns over the course of two hours debating how best to tackle a major shortage in teachers and facilities and how to fund improved outcomes for the state's 3 million children under 5 years old. Democratic candidate Annie Oliva was not present.
Most candidates acknowledged that there are significant problems with the current state of early childhood education in the region but had different ideas about how and what the government should fund to fix those problems.
One key problem in early childhood education, several candidates argued, is that early child care workers are so low-paid that in this high-cost area, there's a major shortage of providers and subsequently child care spots.
Only 1 in 9 children ages 0 to 3 who are qualified and eligible for subsidized care can currently get it today, said Becker, an entrepreneur and nonprofit fund leader from Menlo Park.
"These teachers are only paid half of what kindergarten teachers are paid,” Becker said. "And preschool teachers are six times more likely to live in poverty than K-12 teachers — so we absolutely have to start with living wage."
When it comes to special education, he added, he'd push for a statewide systematic screening program to help schools identify students in need of additional services earlier.
And how to fund such new investments? Becker suggested California create an oil extraction tax and dedicate a large percent — or perhaps all — of its proceeds toward early childhood education.
Brownrigg, a Burlingame City Council member who is a former diplomat and venture capitalist, said he agreed about the oil extraction tax as a potential short-term source of capital, alongside Proposition 13 reform and exploring reductions to the prison budget to come up with the $6 billion to $9 billion he estimates that early childhood programs will cost.
He added that about 60% of early childhood educators are on public assistance, an indicator that they're not being paid enough. Increasing pay for teachers and care providers for young children would also entice more people to work in the field, he added.
Preschool facilities need to be built; teachers need better pay; families in poverty need ways to get to and from preschool — and investments need to be made in pre- and post-natal care, nutrition and education, he said.
"It's not complicated; it's just expensive," Brownrigg said.
"There's no doubt about the research," he said. "We have an achievement gap because we have a kindergarten gap. If we can fix the kindergarten gap — if we can help kids be ready to learn when they go through that door, we're going to have a dramatic impact on graduation rates and achievement."
The real question, he said, becomes, "Who's going to fight for budget best? Who's going to get the dollars into the sector that we know we need?"
He talked about his track record with overcoming funding problems as a council member during the recession. And he pointed to the fact that Oklahoma has offered universal pre-kindergarten to 4-year-olds in that state since 1998.
"Why can't California have that?" he asked.
To make child care facilities more readily available, he added, new developments should be required to make allowances for child care centers, instead of retail, in new mixed-use buildings.
Masur, a City Council member in Redwood City, former school board member and education nonprofit leader, said she supports the unionization of child care workers and wants to see higher pay for early childhood teachers living in higher cost areas, in addition to K-12 teachers. If elected, she said, she'd convene a roundtable with health care providers and workforce experts to look into how to improve health care access for early childhood care providers and teachers.
"I've been a fighter for public education, first as a parent in a low-income school, then later serving 10 years on the Redwood City School Board," Masur said.
While on the council, she added, she's been working on a task force that's prioritized expanding child care facilities throughout San Mateo County. The city has also created a child care locator map and has suggested developing a navigator program to help working families explore their child care options.
She also supports expanding state preschool to offer full-day programs to better accommodate working families.
To pay for it, some funding might come from a ballot initiative in the works to close a corporate property tax loophole, estimated to generate about $12 billion in additional property taxes statewide annually, she said.
Glew, an engineer and a Los Altos design review commissioner, expressed significant skepticism toward government-run day care programs.
"I wouldn't trust the government with my dog. I'm not sure I would with a 2-year-old," he said. "We need to be very careful about what we put in place." He suggested private co-op models instead.
Glew emphasized his belief that public funds be used wisely.
"The question isn't 'Is childhood education good?' The question is 'What childhood education is best, (and) what can we afford?’ There are numerous studies throughout the literature, and we need to make good choices because every dollar we spend incorrectly on this is a dollar not spent on something else."
He suggested that the state could start by looking at improvements to Head Start, a federally funded early childhood school-readiness program, and making sure those dedicated federal funds reach the district.
"We pay a lot of taxes to the feds. They should give some back," he said.
Lieber, a former state assemblywoman from Mountain View who has talked during her campaign about her efforts to provide political support to disenfranchised communities, said at the debate: "Children are the ultimate 'little guy' in the process. They don't vote. They don't have money to give to politicians. They don't have a voice in the process. And it's up to caring and determined adults to protect their life chances and their future."
One potential funding source, she said, could be a wealth tax on the unearned income of California's billionaires.
She added that she'd be interested in looking at the programs that support children and families at the federal poverty level, such as housing, food support, diaper support or parental education, alongside "dealing with the impact of racism on families in our communities." In addition, she added she'd like to see San Mateo County become a more competitive county for state demonstration projects.
She also talked about the need for more health care facilities for infants and toddlers as well as crisis nurseries, or facilities open 24/7 to offer child care to children ages 0 to 5 during family emergencies. There's only one in the Bay Area, located in Concord. Such facilities should be available to all who need them, she said.
"For working families that are already on the ropes financially, a child's illness can really knock them out of being able to make it through the month," she said.
Webster, a software engineer from Mountain View, took an opposing view from the other candidates. He said he didn't think the government should be involved in education at all, except to ensure that teacher training programs offer an early childhood education component.
He added, "All education, including early childhood education, should be financed by tuition through loans and not through taxing the productive and the wealthy."
The event was moderated by education experts and advocates Ted Lempert and Deborah Stipek. Lempert is the president of Children Now, a national research and advocacy nonprofit, and the founding CEO of EdVoice, an education reform organization in California. He also served in the state Assembly from 1988 to 1992 and 1996 to 2000 and previously served on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors.
Stipek is a professor at Stanford University's Graduate School of Education, an education policy leader and current chair of the Heising-Simons Development and Research on Early Math Education Network.
"We rank 39th (among U.S. states) in quality preschool programs," Lempert said. "This is the issue of our time: ensuring that kids are well-educated."
He added that while there are a growing number of leaders in Sacramento who understand the problems related to early childhood education, "There's a difference between getting the issue and making it the priority."
According to Stipek, California's education gap compared to other states' is significant and starts early.
"Already, by kindergarten entry, children from low-income homes are a year to a year and a half behind their middle class and more affluent peers," she told the audience. "So if we're going to address the achievement gap in California, we have to invest in opportunities for young children."
She added that in her work, she's identified many areas that need "a lot of work": Improving access to affordable child care and learning programs that meet the needs of working parents, including those with nonstandard working hours; expanding the early childhood education teacher pipeline; addressing facility shortages; improving screening and support for kids with special needs; and improving the quality of early childhood programs overall, with a particular emphasis on special education.
"My concern is that if we expand access without increasing quality, we may end up disappointed by the results, and I don't want anybody saying eight years from now, 'Gee, we tried it out. We invested in young children and it didn't work, so let's do something else,'" Stipek said.
California has not only 3 million children ages 0 to 5 but the largest number of children living in poverty in the U.S., according to a flyer published by the event organizers, which included a number of education and early childhood advocacy organizations.
In addition, Lempert said, citing the U.S. Census Bureau, children under 5 are the age group most likely to experience homelessness.
Yet 85% of brain development occurs between the ages of 0 and 5, and research indicates that every dollar invested in high quality early care and education can save taxpayers $13 in future costs. Such investment is reported to boost student grades, graduation rates, college attendance and career success, while lowering the high school drop-out rate, criminal behavior, teen pregnancy and the need for special education services.
The local economy has worsened high turnover rates among early childhood educators and child care providers. One analysis estimates that in San Mateo County alone, by 2025, there will be a shortage of 2,500 preschool teachers and 14,000 child care slots.
In concluding the event, organizers asked the candidates if they would commit to four actions: to assign a legislative assistant to work on the issue; to visit two early learning centers; to visit a workforce development program addressing the shortage of early childhood care providers; and to answer questions for San Mateo and Santa Clara counties' city councils addressing these issues. All of the candidates except Webster committed to all four provisions.
Event co-sponsors included the Community Equity Collaborative, Congregation Beth-Am, League of Women Voters, Good2Know Network, the Santa Clara County Office of Education, Foothill College, Peninsula Family Service, Footsteps Child Care, First 5 San Mateo County and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.
Additional information and resources are posted at bit.ly/CandidateForumECEInfo.
State Senate District 13 includes the area from South San Francisco to Sunnyvale and along the coast from north of Pacifica to Año Nuevo State Park. The top two candidates in the primaries, to be held March 3, will move forward to the November general election. Because both San Mateo and Santa Clara counties send all registered voters their ballots by mail, many voters have likely already received their ballots and may submit them in advance of March 3.
• Read our profiles of each candidate and watch videotaped interviews with six of the seven contenders, at multimedia.paloaltoonline.com.