President Barack Obama's call for states to provide high-quality preschool for every child was met Wednesday with both applause and skepticism in California, where officials are ready, willing – but not yet able.
Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday hit a sore spot in the nation's most populous state, where proposals for massive expansions of publicly funded preschool programs were killed by lawmakers in 2007 and voters in 2006.
"Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road," Obama said.
But nationwide, less than three of every 10 4-year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program, he said.
"Most middle-class parents can't afford a few hundreds bucks a week for private preschool," Obama said. "And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives.
Obama administration officials said the plan is to work with Congress to provide all low- and moderate-income 4-year-olds with high-quality preschool, while expanding such programs for middle-class children.
A sampling of reaction by California school advocates Wednesday could be summed up in four words: Show me the money.
Tom Torlakson, superintendent of public instruction, applauded Obama's "call for making early learning a national priority" but noted the state has suffered tough times economically.
"We know there are significant benefits to helping children start school excited and ready to learn – and that those benefits last the rest of their lives," he said in a written statement.
"Like other parts of the nation, California has struggled to preserve high-quality early education during the Great Recession. We look forward to this new opportunity to partner with the Administration."
Obama said that every dollar invested in early childhood education "can save more than $7 later on, by boosting graduation rates, teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime."
Kevin Gordon, a veteran lobbyist for school groups, said that Obama has a strong bully pulpit to push the idea, but "if there aren't resources to go with it, you're not going to make much progress in California."
The state's price tag to offer preschool to every youngster would be massive: Legislation to serve all 3- and 4-year-olds in California pegged costs at $1.4 billion to $4.2 billion annually. The bill died before reaching the governor in 2007.
One year earlier, voters killed Proposition 82, which would have hiked taxes on Californians with annual incomes exceeding $400,000 to provide voluntary preschool to 4-year-olds.
Preschool advocates say early instruction is crucial for a state competing in a global marketplace.
Fifty-nine percent of California's 3- and 4-year-olds attended preschools in 2007, representing about two-thirds of all 4-year-olds and just over half of all 3-year-olds, according to a study by the Rand Corp.
Many low-income parents can't afford private preschools, however, and California has struggled to meet demand for public facilities.
Catherine Atkin, president of Preschool California, a nonprofit group pushing for early childhood development, said that studies show that less than 15 percent of low-income children attend a high-quality preschool.
"There really is no time like the present to really get those kids ready," Atkin said, adding that Obama's call to action will force California to respond. "The federal government is going to be saying to states, 'What's your strategy for getting the kids who need it most ready for kindergarten?' "
"I think we've got to do it," Atkin said of preschool access for all youth. "But it's not going to happen overnight."
Obama's preschool push follows years of budget crisis in California that has hurt key state programs, including preschools.
The state has cut about $120 million from public preschool budgets the past four years, eliminating 30,000 slots in reducing funding to $480 million according to the state Legislative Analyst's Office.
But California recently launched a three-year implementation of a new program, transitional kindergarten, designed to bolster school readiness for some 4-year-olds. When fully operational, the program will serve children whose fifth birthdays occur between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2.
Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, an Alamo Democrat who chairs the Assembly Education Committee, said she's a strong supporter of preschool for all.
Yet "the reality is, if it's a priority for the people of California, then we're going to have to come up with a dedicated funding source to pay for it," she said.
Modesto Republican Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, vice chair of the Assembly Education Committee, also is skeptical.
"As great as the idea is, and research says very positive things about preschool leading to greater student success, the reality of it is there just isn't enough money," said Kim Nickols, Olsen's spokeswoman.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated from print and online versions to correct the amount of state money spent on public preschool to $480 million instead of $480,000. Updated at 10:36 a.m. Feb. 14, 2013.