SMMUSD HDQTRS — For months, as the governor and state legislators wrangled over budget deals, Californians were told that cuts would be borne by every age group and demographic to balance the state budget.

Once again, Santa Monica is feeling the sting of the state’s fiscal knife.

At a presentation before the Board of Education last Wednesday, Judy Abdo, Santa Monica’s former mayor and the school district’s child development services director, revealed unsettling news.

As a result of a 12 percent cut in state funding for child development programs, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District could no longer afford to provide child care services to the city’s 2 year olds.

Those cuts resulted in a $600,000 to $700,000 loss to pre-school programs and those that serve infants to 3 year olds, Abdo said.

Compounding the problem, district space that could be used for toddler care will now be taken up by the federally-funded Head Start program, a national initiative that makes sure young children of poor families can get educational, nutritional and health services.

The district recently took over the Head Start programs previously offered by the Delta Sigma Theta Pre-School for Santa Monica and Venice families, which added another 127 children to the local Head Start rolls.

So, while it will look as though the number of children served is on the rise, entire groups of kids will be cut out of local programs.

“We’re able to serve children eligible for Head Start, but that’s taking up the space where we were going to serve toddlers,” Abdo summarized. “But we don’t have the funding to serve toddlers.”

The school district will also lose the ability to offer full-day child care, a service that is critical to working families that either don’t have the ability to be home with their kids all day, or work unusual hours.

As a result, the impacts of the cuts are falling disproportionately on low-income families.

Children 2 years old and younger are the most difficult age group to serve, said Patti Oblath, executive director of Connections for Children, a nonprofit group that helps connect families with childcare, and low-income families with subsidies to pay for it.

“It’s something that’s always been difficult, but now it’s stretched even thinner,” Oblath said, referring to the difficulty of finding places for younger children in Santa Monica.

The problem rests with funding and state regulations, which require one adult to every four children aged 2 and under, versus the one adult to every eight children ratio for ages 3 and above.

The extra staffing makes it harder for providers to offer spots for younger children and infants, and often leads to families traveling far afield of their homes to get adequate care for their children.

That’s particularly hard on low-income families, Oblath said, and the $1 million in cuts to Connections’ subsidies program has made it more difficult to help those people.

There were 700 families with 1,000 children on the waiting list for Connection subsidies as of June 30 in the region that the organization serves, which includes the Westside, beach cities, Westchester and Culver City.

Those subsidies can be used on formal child care, but, according to Oblath, they can also be used on less expensive, informal arrangements between family and friends.

“A high number of families we serve through the state subsidy use the funds from us to pay a family member or neighbor or friend to look after their children,” Oblath said. “It serves two functions. They increase family financial stability and ensure that the children are in a safe environment.”

That’s critical, particularly for younger children.

According to a 2010 study published in the May/June 2010 edition of Child Development that tracked care provided to children between birth and age 4.5, early care plays a significant role on a child’s success later on in life.

The study showed that children that receive care from non-relatives do better in school by age 15, when the study ended, than kids who did not.

Children who received care from relatives, on the other hand, typically had better emotional and social skills, according to the study.

Deborah Lowe Vandell, Ph.D., a researcher at UC Irvine who worked on the study, said that there is strong evidence that high-quality child care programs for young children help kids to achieve academically and socially later in life, and that children from low-income families reap the biggest rewards.

“Funding high quality programs is a good investment, because it reduces later needs for special education placements and other services,” Vandelll wrote in an e-mail. “When the loss of child care means that parents need to cut back on their work hours, additional strains come into play.”

SMMUSD staff are working to find space on campuses and multiple sources of funding to support toddler care programs so that they can be brought back, Abdo said.

Exactly what’s available won’t be clear until September, when school enrollment numbers — and therefore the space available to serve more kids — are finalized.

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