Can a preschool director turned Assembly speaker boost early childhood programs?

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Before he was speaker of the California Assembly, Anthony Rendon ran preschools for low-income children in Los Angeles. He felt first-hand the sting of the state’s budget cuts during the recession years, watching the rate his preschools received per child from the state drop from $31 in 2008 to $17 in 2012. Very little of the $1.3 billion that was cut from the early education budget has come back to the field in subsequent budget years.

Early education advocates now hope Speaker Rendon will change that.

His speakership began Monday, making him arguably the second most powerful elected official in the state. New term limits means he could hold the job until 2024 – a good number of years to get the early learning field back on track, advocates hope.

And just a few days into his new role, key players in the early education field have already begun reaching out. “I’ve been hearing from them quite a bit,” Rendon told KPCC.

The issues they've already raised include the need for more funding for early childhood education and – a perhaps even more urgent concern for advocates – worries over Governor Jerry Brown's proposal to pool all of the state's current disparate early childhood programs into a single fund.

Fears of getting lost in the block grant

Drawing on her years-long relationship with Rendon, Celia Ayala, CEO of Los Angeles Universal Preschool (LAUP), is one of those who have raised concerns about Brown's child care block grant proposal to the new speaker.

Ayala supports a coalition of groups that wrote to the governor last month urging him to take more time to work out the best solution for overhauling early care and education instead of rushing through a block grant that they see as flawed. She reiterated that message to Rendon as well.

“I believe he recognizes [the problem] and is ready to have a conversation with the governor,” Ayala said.

For his part, Rendon called the block grant plan “vague,” adding, “we’re waiting for him to fill in the details.”

But he said he has concerns about what he does know about the plan thus far. “School districts may do well, [but] nonprofit organizations, such as the two that I ran that provide early childhood education, may get left out," he said.

Rendon directed preschool programs for the Mexican American Opportunity Fund and Plaza de la Raza. Non-profit organizations like these serve a significant number of the state’s children whose families cannot afford to pay for childcare. Rendon fears they may not be a part of the governor’s proposed overhaul.

“This is important enough for me that I’ll talk to [the governor] directly about it, and I’ll also have my staff reach out to his and ask for more specifics,” Rendon said.

Funding battles

Ayala of LAUP also plans to talk with Rendon about the need for more funding for preschool seats. “We need more quality early education spaces, not less,” she said. 

LAUP’s funding for the majority of its preschool seats dries up in June. While the organization has been able to salvage some seats, Ayala estimates thousand of slots for the new school year will be lost.

Can Rendon help?

“My idea is that when I have my upcoming meeting with [the speaker,] I will be presenting him with the latest in terms of possible loss of spaces in L.A. County," Ayala said. At "over 6000, it’s a lot of spaces." 

So far Brown has proposed increasing funding for early childhood by $95 million. But that's only a 3 percent increase, according to a Legislative Analyst's Office analysis, and Brown has been widely criticized by preschool advocates for not proposing more money.

As speaker, Rendon will be a key negotiator of the state budget with the governor and Senate leader. “We now have a budget surplus and we still haven’t even come close to restoring the money that we cut [from early childhood programs],” Rendon said.

The question is: How much will he push for?

The California Women’s Legislative Caucus has proposed $800 million be added to “repair the infrastructure of a state-supported childcare system.” Rendon said he is generally supportive of this plan, in fact, he said, it may not go far enough.

“Even if we were to accept the women’s caucus proposal, it would be a lot and would come close to restoring us to where we were before," Rendon said. "But given that we have more children than before, it still doesn’t meet the need."

It’s sentiments like this that have early childhood advocates excited. Erin Gabel, Deputy Director of First 5 California, said she sees in Rendon someone who truly understands the field.

“We are thrilled to have a speaker who is not only deeply experienced in early childhood education, but well-versed in the early brain science,” said Gabel.

Gabel and First 5 commission chair George Halvorson met with Rendon ahead of his swearing-in as speaker. Halvorson said they did not present any specific proposals to the then-speaker-elect, but they talked extensively about the importance of prioritizing brain science to guide discussions in the Assembly during deliberations around early childhood investments.

Specific asks may come later, Halvorson said. “It was more of a tee up for future interactions.” He said his team did not walk in with any specific requests, but told Rendon they “would be coming back with additional proposals at various times.”

Halvorson was impressed with Rendon’s knowledge of early childhood issues and said the Speaker  asked good questions. “He was interested in what our agendas were and what we were trying to do, why we’re trying to do them.”

And the possibility of discussions led by Rendon on the Assembly floor about children's brain science makes Halvorson excited.  

“He clearly understands the topic so well, so it was kind of like preaching to the choir,” Halvorson said, “and choir is one of my favorite audiences.”

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