3 Reasons Why Early Childhood Matters in Santa Monica
March 19, 2021 4:43 PM
by Ivy Chang
Note: Photo taken prior to COVID-19.
In 2021, there is more research than ever emphasizing the importance of a child’s earliest years and affirming Santa Monica’s longstanding dedication to early childhood. As reflected by the Child Care Master Plan, the Civic Center Specific Plan, and child care subsidies for vulnerable families, the City has long been on the forefront of championing and investing in early childhood education. Our decade-long partnership with Connections for Children (CFC), the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD), and UCLA to collect kindergarten development data in our local public schools is another example.
- Kindergarten Wellbeing
As a community, we want every child to start kindergarten ready to learn and thrive but providing kids with the opportunities to maximize their potential does not happen by accident. In Santa Monica, we started collecting baseline data on kindergarten wellbeing with the implementation of the Early Development Instrument (EDI) in public school classrooms in 2012. The EDI is a short questionnaire completed by kindergarten teachers that measures children’s ability to meet age-appropriate developmental expectations in five domains. It is a population-based measure, which allows us to map trends by neighborhood and across time. Why does it matter? EDI results have shown to be predictive of third grade reading scores and other indicators of future success. We also know that children who score in the range of vulnerable as early as kindergarten struggle to “catch up.”
Ten years of EDI data have informed City and community partner investment in a range of programs and policies to support the development and wellbeing of young children and their families. As a result, our “change over time data” tells us that most Santa Monica kindergarteners are doing well, and we have seen an increase in the percentage of children who are “on track” in all developmental domains (Enhanced Analytics Report, Page 17, Figure 5). In fact, nearly all Santa Monica neighborhoods show a lower level of vulnerability in children’s development compared to the average neighborhood in the EDI’s national sample (EDI Snapshot Report, Page 3, Figure 2). However, one area where we have not made needed progress is in the percentage of children who score in the range of vulnerable. This number has stayed consistent across the years and reflects racial and gender disparities that will take community-wide systems-level change to address. The City remains committed to working with community partners on these issues through the Cradle to Career collective impact initiative and beyond.
- Early Education is Essential
Critical to preparing young children for kindergarten is the availability and accessibility of high-quality early childhood education (ECE). The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how essential early educators are to our community and economy. As of Mar 4, 2021, eighty-three percent of licensed child care providers in Santa Monica were open for in-person services, slightly higher than the county average. This reflects the City and early childhood stakeholders’ commitment to supporting this critical workforce sector through child care referrals (to connect families to available slots), and the distribution of funding and health and safety supplies so that providers can stay open, keep their staff and children safe, and allow parents to work.
However, four of licensed child care providers in Santa Monica have permanently closed and twenty-four have yet to reopen, reflecting a growing struggle for both providers and families. The early education providers who are open, are, on average, facing a forty-seven percent increase in operating costs—with home-based family child care providers facing a seventy percent increase—driven by personnel costs and sanitation supplies. With continued under enrollment (both due to parent fears and mandated by public health guidelines) and limited government aid, child care is an industry that remains vulnerable, and one that the City’s Economic Recovery Task Force (ERTF) has identified as central to Santa Monica’s economic recovery. As such, the ERTF recently approved an application to support all licensed providers who are operating in person with funds to help offset the cost of educational materials. Additionally, the City will host a sector-specific workshop focused on free and low-cost marketing strategies in response to this expressed need from local ECE small businesses and non-profits.
- Child Care Access for Working Families
While child care slots are currently available in Santa Monica, choices for low- and middle-income families are limited by the high cost of care. For reference, monthly infant/toddler care ranges from $987-$2,750, while preschool tuition ranges from $975-$2,450. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), child care is considered affordable if it costs families no more than seven percent of their income. On average, working families paying for child care spend about forty percent more than what is considered affordable. Faced with limited options, many low-income families are forced to cut back on other basic needs, including food, housing, and transportation, to access child care so they can work.
The City has played an important role in supporting low-income Santa Monica families by funding child care subsidies for residents who may not be eligible for other public assistance. In partnership with Connections for Children, last fiscal year, 200 Santa Monica residents received referrals to child care options, and parents of 180 low-income Santa Monica children received subsidies to offset the cost of child care. Of families receiving child care subsidies through the City-funded child care subsidy program this fiscal year to-date (July 1- December 31, 2020):
- 76% are single parent families
- 74% have a family size of three or more
- 87% earn less than $40,000 per year
- 72% require subsidy in order to participate in the workforce
- 93% of families reside in the Pico neighborhood (90404/90405)
- 25% of children are vulnerable, at-risk of abuse, or neglect
Santa Monica is proud of these investments, both for the immediate support offered to families in need, and for the proven long-term benefits of preventing the achievement gap, improving health outcomes, boosting earnings, and providing a high rate of economic return. As the City moves towards economic recovery, we will continue to seek out ways to support our youngest residents, their families, and caregivers with the knowledge that every dollar spent on early childhood pays dividends now and in the future.
Figure 2: Summary of EDI Results by Developmental Area – Santa Monica (2020)