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Legislative Season Break Down – What’s up in Sacramento for Children and Families

Legislative season is in full throttle. Sacramento is buzzing with proposed legislation that would make big changes in California. Given the health of the new budget surplus, advocates and legislators have been leaning in and thinking hard about what parts of the social infrastructure need propping up. On children and families issues, there is a lot to be excited about. Here’s the rundown of a few of my favorites:

First off, let’s talk about the bills that would strengthen California’s early education and care system. There are two big ones, which will be heard jointly by the Senate Education Committee this week. SB 837 (Steinberg), the Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2014, would make a year of education universal for all four-year-olds. SB 1123 (Liu) is a companion bill to SB 837 and was recently amended from a spot bill. Now it is a major piece of legislation that would do many things to strengthen education and development opportunities for infants and toddlers, including:

  • Update the staffing ratios used in center-based programs.
  • Increase educational requirements of center-based programs to at least one teacher in each classroom that holds at least a child development teacher permit.
  • Eliminate fees for parents with children enrolled in the state’s part-day subsidized preschool program.
  • Expand the definition of quality child care and preschool to include indicators of parent education and support, as well as continuity of care.

These bills together would make major changes to California’s child care and early education system, which the LAO recently described as having “serious design flaws” and called on the Legislature to “fundamentally restructure.” The time to look deeply at California’s system of care and development for our youngest learners is now.

AB 1444 (Buchanan and Weber) would make kindergarten mandatory (it’s optional now), further strengthening the learning environment for young children and ensuring that no one slips through the cracks. California would join 16 other states in mandating kindergarten if the bill passes.

In addition to these bills, I’m excited to see the Legislature developing forward-looking policies on issues that impact low-income families. There are a number of bills that would improve the CalWORKs program, including:

  • AB 1579 (Mitchell) has proposed an eminently sensible bill that would make low-income first-time moms eligible for CalWORKs benefits from the beginning of their pregnancies. Current law only allows a low-income woman to start receiving benefits in her last trimester of pregnancy. The bill would cover women whose income already makes them eligible for CalWORKs, but are not eligible because the program’s rules require a person to have both very low income and a dependent child. The bill is now in Assembly appropriations, which will look closely at the cost implications of offering poor pregnant women a few hundred dollars of income a month.
  • Assembly Member Gonzalez’s AB 1516 would offer a further support to CalWORKs parents, by providing a small monthly stipend to pay for diapers. Diapers may seem like a silly issue at first glance, but it’s really not. Diapers are very expensive for any family, but for a family who is living on a CalWORKs grant (e.g., maximum of $638 per month for a family of three), they can be unaffordable. Food stamps and WIC benefits cannot be used to purchase diapers. A nifty little organization called Help A Mother Out provides diapers to families in need and describes the isolation and desperation these families experience.
  • AB 271 (Mitchell) would extend CalWORKs grants to cover infants born to mothers already on aid. Current law stipulates that children born to parents receiving welfare benefits from the state are excluded from the aid calculation. In other words, the state tries to deter mothers from having additional children by limiting the grant amount to cover only the children already born when she signs up. The problem is welfare benefits have not proven to be an effective way to control a person’s reproductive choices, and in the meantime, families try to make due with an even more constrained budget. In the end, the policy puts newborns at risk. 

Finally, an issue that is important to a wide range of Californians, but that hits families and particularly families living on the edge of poverty hardest: AB 1522 (Gonzalez) would mandate that all employers offer at least three days of paid sick days. With the passage of the bill, California would join a handful of states that offer this minimum labor standard to all employees. Nationally, almost four in ten employees in the private sector don’t have access to paid sick days, and many of these work with the food we eat, or care for our children or our vulnerable seniors. Giving them access to a few days off when they’re sick is just common sense.

Enough for now – I’m tracking and rooting for many other bills, but will save those for another day. Off to Sacramento to sit in on committee hearings.

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