Dan Walters

Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Pre-kindergarten expansion shapes up as key budget issue

Published: Monday, Jan. 27, 2014 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Monday, Jan. 27, 2014 - 12:13 am

As Gov. Jerry Brown’s new budget was receiving its initial legislative airing last week, Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson asked the governor’s budgetary point person, Keely Bosler, about “transitional kindergarten.”

Giving California’s 4-year-olds universal access to state-supported classes is the declared “No. 1 priority” for Jackson and other Democratic senators – part of a nationwide movement to expand early childhood education.

But the budget contains nothing for it and Bosler reacted negatively to Jackson, reflecting Brown’s evident reluctance to create a new entitlement that could eventually cost a billion dollars or more a year.

It shapes up as a major confrontation. He’ll be running for re-election as a tightwad who wants to pay down debt and create new “rainy day” reserves, while Democratic legislators want to spend a big chunk of the new revenues from an improving economy and a temporary tax increase.

“Fiscal discipline is not the enemy of our democracy but its fundamental predicate,” Brown said in his State of the State address. “To avoid the mistakes of the past we must spend with great prudence and we must establish a solid rainy-day fund, locked into the constitution.”

Local schools are now authorized to offer transitional kindergarten, but only a relative few do so. Senate Bill 837, introduced by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, would make it mandatory.

Advocates contend that getting kids into school earlier, especially kids from poor homes, would improve their chances of educational success and employment later. Eight years ago, they pushed a ballot measure that would have jacked up cigarette taxes to provide universal pre-kindergarten, only to be defeated. Now, they want the state to do it.

California is not the only state debating the issue, nor the only one where it has become a political football. In red states, conservative politicians tend to oppose it, both on its cost and on suspicions that it would undermine parental influence over young children.

Another factor in California and elsewhere is that birthrates have declined and so will school enrollment, and expanding early childhood education would be a way, in essence, of propping up the use of facilities and maintaining jobs for unionized teachers.

The debate has taken an odd twist in New York state, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo is willing to spend $1.5 billion to expand pre-kindergarten but is jousting with New York City’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, who wants to raise taxes on high-income city dwellers to pay for expansion.

The outcome in California is very uncertain.

It goes to the heart of a fundamental philosophical difference between Brown and the Steinberg-led Democrats on fiscal policy, and the outcome depends on whether either side wants it to become a make-or-break issue in the budget.

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

Read more articles by Dan Walters

Dan Walters, political columnist

Dan Walters

Dan Walters has been a journalist for more than a half-century, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. At one point in his career, at age 22, he was the nation's youngest daily newspaper editor.

He joined The Sacramento Union's Capitol bureau in 1975, just as Jerry Brown began his first governorship, and later became the Union's Capitol bureau chief. In 1981, Walters began writing the state's only daily newspaper column devoted to California political, economic and social events and, in 1984, he and the column moved to The Sacramento Bee. He has written more than 7,500 columns about California and its politics and his column now appears in dozens of California newspapers.

Email: dwalters@sacbee.com
Phone: 916-321-1195
Twitter: @WaltersBee

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