Orange County's decision to close its child-care centers for low-income families and turn them over to private operators has prompted directors of similar programs across the state to form a lobbying group that aims to stop the same thing from happening elsewhere.
Unless the state puts more money toward high-quality child care, other school districts and county offices of education will have to shut their programs too, said Frances Oda, director of child development services for the Sacramento City Unified School District.
"We're looking at this as a true wake-up call," Oda said. "We need to be very serious and deliberate."
The program run by the Orange County Department of Education, which for 25 years has provided child care to nearly 1,000 children from low-income families, ends Dec. 15.
All but one of its 13 child development centers will be taken over by two private nonprofit child-care centers. Child Development Inc. of Campbell, Calif., will take over 10, and Child's Pace of Costa Mesa will operate two. One will close. Most of the children now in the program will be able to remain, but the 200 teachers and aides face drastic pay cuts--in most cases up to one-third of their salaries. Some will lose health benefits.
Many employees already have decided to leave, raising questions about the quality of education, which is seen as key to the future academic success of disadvantaged children.
"I feel betrayed," said Jennifer Campanaro, who has taught in the county's Costa Mesa center for 10 years but quit rather than take a pay cut.
Campanaro expressed doubts that lesser-paid educators--most of whom will make $10 to $16 an hour--can successfully teach these children English and other subjects.
"A lot of the children are low-income and can't speak English," she said. "If we can teach them English, then they have a fighting chance when they get to elementary school. It's important, or I thought it was."
John LeVere, director of Costa Mesa-based Child's Pace, defended the quality of his existing child-care center. He'll give teachers training seminars and other support, he said, although he acknowledged, "There's no way I can pay those teachers what they were getting."
The state's $1.9-billion child-care program funnels money for child care through a network of organizations, from county and school district-run centers to private nonprofit centers to vouchers given directly to programs in which low-income families enroll their children. In all, about 300,000 children across the state are served by the program, said Michael Jett, director of child development for the state Department of Education.
The state-funded program is one of a range of government-subsidized offerings for low-income families. But money from those other programs cannot be used to rescue the endangered programs, in which funding has not kept up with the pace of pay increases.
Orange County officials decided in September that they could no longer afford to operate the state-funded program. Because of collective bargaining agreements, child development teachers in most school districts get the same pay raises as regular classroom teachers, but the state does not provide the funding to do that.
This year, when the state gave school districts the largest cost-of-living increase in more than 15 years, allowing pay raises for teachers, many district and county-run child education programs had to scramble to keep child development programs running while giving child development teachers the same raises.
"When I heard about Orange County, I thought 'I could see our district heading down that same path,' " Oda said. "We have been basically surviving, and we need to do more than survive."
Administrators in many other districts felt the same way and are now determined to make legislators aware of the problems they face.
They hastily called a meeting for Monday in Sacramento. The group will meet again in December to hash out strategies for lobbying state officials.
Ellin Chariton, director of child development services for the Orange County Department of Education, said the formation of the lobbying group was the one good thing that has come out of her program's closure.
"When we went public with our problem, other agencies realized they have serious concerns," she said. "It has kept me up at night. . . . We all have a great worry that the future of this system can no longer operate."
Chariton said she did not go to Sacramento for the meeting because she is spending most of her time overseeing the dismantling of her child development centers.
Child-care experts also hailed the formation of the group. At a time when politicians and education experts are stressing early childhood education and children are expected to have basic literacy skills when they enter first grade, child-care experts blasted the state for making it impossible for school districts to run affordable programs.
State officials "want quantity over quality," said Paul Miller, public policy chair for the Child Development Policy Institute, a lobbying group. "The political will is there to . . . serve more folks with child-care programs," he added. "But there's no interest to ensure that there's quality."
Hiring well-trained, dedicated teachers is crucial to having a good program, Miller said, but over the last 20 years, child development programs have received about $100 million less in cost-of-living increases than the amount awarded to K-12 education.
Miller predicted that more school districts will be forced to close their child-care programs and turn them over to private operators without more state money coming in.