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Joe Mathews: California is being too timid on prekindergarten

The future of prekindergarten looked so promising in California back in the fall of 2014.

State leaders were congratulating themselves on passing a budget and new legislation that promised more than 40,000 new full-day pre-K spots for low-income 4-year-olds. California was celebrated as a leader of a nationwide movement that would guarantee preschool for every child someday.

In 2024, as I sit here composing this column on my brain’s iChip, we know that the day of universal pre-K never arrived.

For all their big ambitious promises in 2014, California’s leaders were so cautious in how they launched their new investment that they sabotaged a great opportunity for real social progress. When trying to build for the future, it can be reckless to make the creation too small to withstand the winds of time.

To be fair, universal pre-K – despite its popularity in polls and its potential (freeing parents to work and better preparing children for school and productive lives) – was never easy to expand, or explain. Pre-K was, and remains, a somewhat amorphous concept, organized in many different ways and subject to many differing standards, funding sources and even names (sometimes called preschool, junior kindergarten or transitional kindergarten).

Still, 2014 seemed like a moment of real opportunity. More than 35 states supported some form of pre-K. And California decided to step up and devote nearly $273 million to fund 11,500 new full-day preschool spaces for low-income 4-year-olds at first, and another 31,500 in future years. The legislation’s stated intent was to eventually cover pre-K for 234,000 children, or about half of all 4-year-olds in the state.

At the time, this first step made sense. The state was coming out of a decade-long budget crisis, which had forced cuts to early childhood programs. So start slow and build support, the thinking went, and universal pre-K would follow.

But that was the wrong approach for California.

The new investment simply didn’t reach enough people to build a strong constituency for pre-K. In fact, the highly touted 2014 legislation covered fewer kids over multiple years than New York City – with less than one-quarter of California’s population – managed to add in the fall of 2014 alone (more than 51,000).

And by targeting low-income kids, the legislation made it hard for middle-class voters to see the new pre-K investment in their daily lives – and thus made it easy to stigmatize the program as another need-based handout.

The state of Georgia understood this basic political reality. Georgia today, as in 2014, boasts the country’s oldest and most durable public pre-K program because of its universality. Conservative Republicans in that state’s Legislature didn’t want to scale pre-K back; their own kids and grandkids were in it.

It could have been so here as well. California in 2014 had a rare budget surplus, and enough money to cover every 4-year-old. In fact, that very same summer the Legislature put just $273 million into pre-K, it threw even more money – $330 million a year – at incentives for motion picture production, even though TV and movies were already a stagnant business.

Predictably, when the state budget surplus disappeared a few years later, the new pre-K investment was immediately vulnerable since it didn’t have any of the special protections – approval by ballot initiative or as a constitutional measure – of other programs. At first, the state merely delayed some of the expansion promised in the 2014 legislation. But when a recession hit at the end of the decade, the ax came out.

Looking back at 2014, it’s frustrating to see how so many people knew the approach was flawed but were unable to alter course. Indeed, the original legislation was much more ambitious, establishing a truly universal pre-K for all 4-year-olds.

Now, in 2024, I find myself wishing the Mark Zuckerberg Institute – with its $1 trillion endowment and ownership of all the world’s accumulated personal data – was making more progress on its planned time travel machine. It sure would be nice to go back to 2014 and do pre-K differently.