This week, the Council will consider the first comprehensive update of our zoning ordinance in more than three decades. This document should reflect the values of our community. Equitable access to safe, affordable, high quality early childhood education for working families is truly indispensable for our community.
The zoning ordinance update wisely proposed that early child care education centers be allowed in single-family home neighborhoods pursuant to conditional use permit, consistent with the way they have been treated in all multi-family residential zones for many years. However, the version being proposed to the Council next week eliminates early childhood education centers from ever being considered in single-family residential neighborhoods, where many children live.
This is unnecessarily drastic. Under the standards proposed in the zoning ordinance update, an early childhood education center planned for a single-family neighborhood would have to go through a regulatory gauntlet, including public hearings before the Planning Commission and potentially the City Council, to obtain a conditional use permit. Neighborhood residents would have multiple opportunities to weigh in with concerns and objections, as well as to impose conditions to mitigate the challenges a new early childhood education center might bring to the neighborhood.
Additionally, these centers exist for the education of our youngest children. It simply doesn’t make sense that schools are allowed to operate in single-family residential zones, but early childhood education centers are not. The zoning ordinance update would hold early childhood education centers to the same standards to which we hold our schools. All education facilities should be given equal treatment under our zoning standards and be allowed in our single-family neighborhoods because we want them near to the families they serve.
Even though high land prices make it unlikely that early childhood education centers would open in single-family residential neighborhoods, we should not foreclose the possibility when the need for high quality early childhood education is so great.
Another change being considered is restricting supervised outdoor play in existing day care and early childhood education facilities to no later than 6 p.m. Currently, children are allowed to play outdoors while supervised as late as 8 pm in the summertime, so long as the sun is out.
The proposed restriction, however, would mean that kids can’t be engaged in outdoor programs during spring and summer when it’s light outside after 6 pm. If their parents can’t pick them up before 6 pm, they will lose out on essential outdoor play experience, which, leading experts agree, is essential to the educational development of young children.
Our community has been dedicated to high quality early childhood education for decades.
The most recent example of Santa Monica’s commitment to our children’s future is the joint effort between the city and Santa Monica College to create the Early Childhood Education Center (ECEC) at the Civic Center. The ECEC will provide much needed full-day care for many of our community’s working families.
The Center will not only provide early childhood education for up to 106 infants, toddlers, and pre-school aged children, it will also be a place for our future educators to learn from leading experts in the field in a hands-on environment.
Centers like SMC’s ECEC as well as family day care centers, the largest of which each serve up to 14 children, are vital institutions for working families and the future of our children. If quality early childhood education is not available, especially for infants and toddlers, many working Santa Monica families find themselves forced to choose between continuing to work and staying home to take care of children. Or, if one parent simply cannot stay home, then the family must scramble to piece together substandard care for their children. Those difficult choices have grave consequences for many families.
While the proposed zoning update may look to many like an arcane and tedious document, some of what lies within can profoundly affect the lives of our most vulnerable residents.
Leti McNeil Light
for Santa Monica Forward