California is working to improve early childhood education. But we need to take it even further

This Op-Ed originally appeared in The Sacramento Bee on August 6, 2019. 

I still remember realizing minutes after my son Robby was born that I was responsible for this tiny human being, even as I failed to remember a shred of what I’d learned about being a new parent. It began with difficulty nursing, followed by sleep deprivation and questions about whether he was eating and sleeping enough.

I’ve since learned that these questions and many others in the early years of our children’s lives are common. Each mom has her own story, and I was fortunate that mine did not include losing my job after taking time off to care for Robby, difficulty paying rent, not enough food, lack of health care or fear that I would be targeted because of my immigration status.

That is a reality faced by many California families today. Yet, I am optimistic that our state stands at a moment of opportunity as Gov. Gavin Newsom, our state Legislature and other policymakers have made early childhood a top priority. And I’m hopeful that they will deliver on the promise of a California where our public systems truly prepare young children to reach their full potential, a goal the David and Lucile Packard Foundation has long supported.

That starts with good health care for pregnant moms and, after babies are born, paid family leave that allows parents to bond with them and support healthy development while reducing the need for costly infant care. I’m encouraged to see proposals to expand paid leave so more families can use it without fearing they’ll lose their jobs or struggling to afford to take the time off, challenges which disproportionately affect low-income workers.

It continues with quality health insurance that covers all the visits we made to the pediatrician, who screened Robby to see if not just his physical but his social and emotional development – the ability to understand others’ feelings, control his behavior, get along with others and build relationships with adults – was on track.

I hope to see a day when it is easier for parents to find affordable, high-quality child care and preschool so that they are confident that while they work their children are in loving, safe environments with skilled caregivers and educators supporting their growth and development.

We must better support child care providers like Robby’s, who referred me to resources when I was worried that he was slow in learning to speak, as well as preschool teachers like his who helped him learn to use words to express his emotions and instilled a sense of self confidence and love of learning. Our hardworking early childhood education workforce deserves to be treated like the professionals they are, with compensation that includes working environments that provide professional development and other supports to help them promote children’s learning and growth.

We can build on momentum created by the Assembly Blue Ribbon Commission on Early Childhood Education’s recommendations and the recently passed state budget. It included funding for expanding paid family leave and increasing access to child care, preschool and improved health services to identify children’s needs early and provide appropriate intervention.

In the coming year, advocates will be watching to see if early childhood issues are elevated on the national stage. And we must stand ready to protect early childhood programs from cuts if the economy slows. Here in California, we have the opportunity to inform a new Early Childhood Master Plan and Early Childhood Policy Council that will build upon past work to set a course for the future.

My son Robby is entering third grade this fall, and I’m grateful for the foundation he has received. And while California has taken the first steps towards giving all children a strong, early start, we must now finish the work. By strengthening the ways we support our children and families, we can ensure that California leads the nation in preparing our children for success in school and in life.

Deborah Kong is a program officer for the Children, Families, and Communities program at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. She is also an Education influencer for McClatchy’s California Influencers series.