Education

Why tiny brains are getting massive attention in the California governor's race

On a campaign trip to Los Angeles, Gavin Newsom visited Shenandoah Early Education Center in the L.A. Unified School District to talk with kids and district leaders.
On a campaign trip to Los Angeles, Gavin Newsom visited Shenandoah Early Education Center in the L.A. Unified School District to talk with kids and district leaders.

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The first years of life are extremely important for our brains. One million neural connections are made every single second of life until the age of 3, according to current research, and the preschool years have a long-term influence on outcomes in health and education. That means there's a very small window of time to make a monumental impact on the course of development.

But during the recession, state funding for programs like infant toddler care and preschool was severely cut — and those funds have not been restored under Gov. Jerry Brown.

Early childhood advocates have been campaigning for months to get the next governor on board with their efforts, arguing that otherwise the state risks another eight years with an underfunded field and another generation of California constituents missing out on crucial resources for human development.

Going into the June primary, their efforts are bearing fruit. Early childhood care and education has taken center stage in numerous debates and candidate forums.

"This is the first time that babies, toddlers, preschoolers are being talked about by the leading candidates for governor and it's really, really exciting," said Avo Makdessian, director of the Center for Early Learning at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. 

That foundation, in partnership with organizations across the state, launched a multi-million-dollar initiative called Choose Children 2018 to raise awareness about the importance of the first years of life.

Each of the leading candidates got in-person briefings and packets on the more than 100 studies on brain development, school readiness, about how investments in early childhood can safe costs down the line.

There's good reason for the candidates to pay attention. California is home to roughly 3 million children aged 5 and under, and the state has the highest child poverty rate in the country. In L.A. County, more than half of babies and toddlers are eligible for state-subsidized care, but only 6 percent are getting it

The campaign polled voters and found that nearly nine in 10 want California's next governor to support greater investments in early childhood care and education. The majority of those polled ranked early childhood issues above infrastructure and homelessness. Other polls show great support for paid family leave and home visiting programs for new parents.

"Early education needs to be the next climate change, or cap and trade or the next Local Control Funding Formula or the next big transportation package -- that is what it needs to be for the next governor," said Khydeeja Alam Javid, director of governmental relations at Advancement Project California. "So we're doing everything possible to make sure that's the case."

And the idea is, if it’s a campaign promise, advocates can hold the next governor accountable to deliver.

This is a rare moment in California history because there are already leaders in the state senate and assembly who are passionate about early childhood issues (and right now the Legislative Women's Caucus is asking Gov. Brown for a $1 billion investment in child care in the current budget), so getting the top politician on board would create an alignment of the stars of political willpower.

Another part of the strategy was to hold forums with each of the candidates on early childhood issues. Check them out to get an in-depth idea of how five of the top candidates are thinking about these issues. 

Advocates say that as the body of research about brain develop grows and becomes more accessible, there's been a societal shift in the way we think about young children. One extreme example: up until at least the late 1970s, it was common practice to operate on infants with little or no anesthesia because of a belief that newborns didn't feel pain.

"I think what we're seeing is also a sea change among voters, but also just among the general public to understand that those [early years] are investment years to actually build strong foundations," said Kim Pattillo Brownson, vice president of policy and strategy at First 5 LA.

Poke around the campaign websites for any of the leading Democratic candidates and you will see evidence that the message has been received.

Education, starting with prenatal care, is on the homepage of frontrunner Gavin Newsom's campaign site. He has four young children of his own and, during a recent visit to an early learning center in the L.A. Unified School District, called himself a "fanatic" when it comes to early childhood issues.

Delaine Eastin’s section on education starts with a goal to improve prenatal and delivery care and parental leave, before moving on to child development programs.

John Chiang’s website has a section that’s all about investing in the early years to save down the road.

Antonio Villaraigosa includes early childhood as part of a California Student Bill of Rights.

While his website doesn't mention education, Republican candidate John Cox, who is coming in second in some polls, said during a recent debate that he wants to bring down the cost of living so parents can afford early care and education for their kids. 

Watch how each candidate responds to a question about universal preschool: