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External Resources, Resources | | Learning Policy Institute

Understanding California’s Early Care and Education System

Early care and education (ECE) can have a positive effect on many aspects of children’s development, including the language, literacy, mathematics, executive functioning, and social-emotional competencies needed for a smooth transition into kindergarten and later life success. But for many families, high-quality ECE is out of reach. For a family of three earning $40,000 a year, child care costs roughly 20% of household income; for a single parent earning the minimum wage, that number is 50%. California has established a range of programs to support the development of children from birth to age 5, but these programs are uncoordinated, insufficient in scope, and of variable quality. This report provides a comprehensive overview of the state’s ECE system, describing its administration and funding, access to care, program quality, and data limitations.

Landscape of California’s ECE Programs

California offers an array of state- and federally funded ECE programs for children birth to age 5, particularly those living in or near poverty. The system can be difficult for policymakers, providers, and families to understand because of its complexity.

  • California’s ECE system encompasses a patchwork of programs with distinct purposes and designs. These include school readiness programs such as California State Preschool, Head Start and Early Head Start, and transitional kindergarten, as well as those designed to support working parents, such as the voucher-based Alternative Payment programs and General Child Care and Development. Others include home visiting and special education.
  • Many federal, state, and local agencies administer ECE programs, making the system complex and confusing. Nearly all of California’s ECE programs are partially supported by federal and state funds and, thus, are subject to oversight by multiple authorizing agencies. This complexity can create confusion and increase the burden of administrative and reporting requirements for providers and families.

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