A panel on early childhood education convened by the nonprofit Common Sense Kids Action included, from right, UCSB associate professor Matt Quirk; Common Sense founder and CEO James Steyer; state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara; and Joyce Stone, program manager of the Santa Barbara County Child Care Planning Council. (Sam Goldman / Noozhawk photo)

Underneath the desirability and conscientious attitude of the Santa Barbara area exists an alarmingly limited access to vital early childhood services.

That was one of the chief messages at a Thursday evening town hall discussion at Santa Barbara High School that addressed the accessibility and prioritization — or lack thereof — of early childhood services, like preschool and educational programs, health screenings, preventative health care and parent support programs.

The panel discussion, part of a traveling series of town halls by Common Sense Kids Action, a national nonprofit organization that advocates for greater early childhood care opportunities, examined those issues at a county and state level before a crowd of a few dozen — mostly local educators and members of Santa Barbara County child-care networks.

“This is the most important issue facing Santa Barbara County, and this is the most important issue facing this state and this country in the next 10 years,” said James Steyer, founder and CEO of San Francisco-based Common Sense.

Steyer was joined on the panel by state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara; Joyce Stone, program manager of the Santa Barbara County Child Care Planning Council; and Matt Quirk, a UC Santa Barbara associate professor at the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education.

The discussion was moderated by Craig Cheslog, Common Sense’ vice president of California policy.

Many parents in the county don’t have the time or can’t afford to take advantage of these services, the panelists emphasized. Many also earn enough income through two or more jobs so they are not eligible for crucial financial assistance, they said.

According to data from an upcoming needs assessment by the Child Care Planning Council, the average monthly cost of enrolling infants in early care and education centers in the county is $1,171.

The average monthly cost for preschool centers in the North County and the Lompoc Valley, the study found, is $559, versus $845 for the South Coast and the Santa Ynez Valley.

The spaces available in a wide variety of early childhood programs falls far behind the number of children who need them, Stone said.

There are fewer than 18,000 “early care and education spaces” available but 35,000 kids in need, according to the assessment.

The nearly 15,000 children who are eligible for state- or federally funded early care and -education programs, the council found, are competing for roughly 7,000 spots in those programs.

The assessment found that more than 35,000 children in the county come from families with income 70 percent or less than the state median income.

The financial-eligibility threshold hasn’t been updated since 2008, Stone said, precluding many who would qualify in 2016-adjusted dollars.

“We’ve heard anecdotally that families turn down raises, wage increases because it can put them over the edge, as it were, and render them ineligible for that care,” she said.

The need is even greater, the panel agreed, for children who are homeless, have disabilities or are learning two languages — most often English and Spanish in the county.

The 0-to-5 age range is the most critical time in a child’s life, and encompasses 90 percent of a person’s brain development, Cheslog explained.

Many of the socio-economic factors behind the achievement gap in schools, he said, “are there because of things that happen before the age of 5.”

“Before any child steps into a California public school, a large part of the achievement gap is already baked into the problem,” he added.

The best determinant of whether a child is ready for school, Quirk said, is whether they attended preschool.

Since 1997, child-care costs have roughly doubled, Stone said, adding that it’s a “tragic irony” that wages haven’t risen at anywhere near the same rate, and that the workers who provide the care are not paid well themselves.

In addition to parents and educators spreading the word about the need for accessible early childhood services and contacting their elected officials, lawmakers need to pass legislation improving access to and prioritizing early childhood care, the panel said.

The private sector could go a long way in helping to improve these circumstances, Steyer and Cheslog added, if companies began providing and facilitating these services themselves.

Another significant, although politically arduous, solution, the panel agreed, is to integrate into one department the “jury-rigged system” of disparate state agencies that address early childhood care.

Similarly, as members of the audience suggested, other forms of care — like those addressing emotional, behavioral and mental health — should be integrated into preschool education, so parents don’t have to divide their time and expenses between a myriad of programs.

Poverty, however, continues to remain a significant hurdle to many local families, said Ben Romo, executive director of First 5 Santa Barbara County, which distributes funds to organizations for early childhood services.

“In Santa Barbara County, those issues are very prevalent in Santa Maria, Guadalupe, to a lesser degree, Lompoc, but in those populations, that’s really where the bulk of our impoverished children are living,” he told Noozhawk.

While the county-wide poverty level for families with children is 16 percent to 17 percent, using the federal definition of poverty, he said, that number jumps to 25 percent in Santa Maria.

One in five children ages 0 to 5 are in poverty throughout the county, he said, versus one in four in Santa Maria.

Although much smaller than its South Coast counterparts, the North County has a focused and dedicated group of service providers and nonprofits, Romo added. The needs, however, still far outstrip the care that is available.

Parents looking for information on early childhood care services, programs and costs can check out the Children’s Resource and Referral of Santa Barbara County.

Noozhawk staff writer Sam Goldman can be reached at sgoldman@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.