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Improving Access to High-Quality Preschool in California's Central Valley

April 2020

A project update from the REL West Central Valley Rural Education and Health Alliance

High-quality education for young children is crucial. It can have significant impacts on their cognitive and physical outcomes and readiness for kindergarten.[1] In Fresno County, the heart of California’s Central Valley, an estimated 60 percent of kindergarten students were not school-ready in 2017, meaning that they did not demonstrate grade-level reading and math skills when they entered kindergarten.[2] As of 2016, only 33 percent of the county’s children were enrolled in a licensed preschool program.

Recent changes in state funding and policy are helping education leaders in California as they address challenges to access and enrollment in high-quality preschool programs. The Fresno County Superintendent of Schools (FCSS) is tapping into these state resources and, with guidance from REL West, analyzing the link between Early Childhood Education (ECE) enrollment and these changes.

Using State Funds to Increase Preschool Access

Recent statewide changes aim to improve access to preschool in all of California’s 58 counties by increasing the median income threshold for families to enroll in state-funded ECE programs and allowing children as young as 2 years, 9 months to attend (previously the age cutoff was 3 years). Additionally, FCSS is implementing other changes for families through a county-specific Childcare Subsidy Pilot authorized through California Assembly Bill 258. This legislation allows increased flexibility for the county to implement strategies that promote ECE access, including lengthening families’ continuous eligibility for state-funded preschool from 12 months to 24.

REL West is partnering with FCSS to analyze data to understand the links between these changes and preschool enrollment in the county. Additionally, REL West plans to use administrative data and surveys of providers and parents to further understand barriers to access and enrollment and guide continued decisions about eligibility policies. This work stands to impact families in the region, many of whom are low-income, migrant, or limited English proficient. Lessons learned will serve as examples for the rest of the region, which experiences similar challenges related to ECE access.

Improving ECE Teacher Retention

ECE teacher retention and professional development are also top issues in California’s efforts to improve early education programs. The ECE workforce across the state has a high turnover rate,[3] and research has shown that teacher retention contributes to the quality of an ECE setting.[4]

California Assembly Bill 212 provides counties with funds to address issues of teacher quality and retention and allows them to determine how best to use those funds to prepare and support ECE providers. FCSS and others in the region are interested in learning from experts and each other about how to use these state resources most effectively.

In 2020, REL West will host an event to bring together Central Valley stakeholders to do just that. The one-day event will include research-based presentations about effective ECE professional development strategies, as well as opportunities for peer-to-peer learning about use of AB 212 funds in this region.

REL West is committed to the success of early learning programs and is pleased to support FCSS and others with data-driven decision-making and research-based strategies. To learn more about this and other REL West work related to early learning, please visit our Early Learning priority area page.

[1] Donoghue, E. A., & American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Early Childhood. (2017). Quality early education and child care from birth to kindergarten. Pediatrics, 140(2).

[2] Fresno Cradle to Career Partnership. (2017). A vision equal to the challenge: 2016–17 annual report. Fresno, CA.

[3] Whitebook, M., & Sakai, L. (2001). Turnover begets turnover: An examination of job and occupational instability among child care center staff. Berkeley, CA: Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, University of California.

[4] Mims, S. U., Scott-Little, C., Lower, J. K., Cassidy, D. J., & Hestenes, L. L. (2008). Education level and stability as it relates to early childhood classroom quality: A survey of early childhood program directors and teachers. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 23(2), 227–237.