Politics & Government

Fresno is ‘ready’ for universal preschool. But is Newsom’s plan the best way to fund it?

Freshly sworn-in Gov. Gavin Newsom is expected to propose a nearly $2 billion plan to expand early childhood education in California, with $1.5 billion coming from a one-time general fund expenditure that some say is a precarious way to fund education.

The money would be used to subsidize child care facilities and expand full-day kindergarten, as well as fund in-home postnatal visits for low-income mothers, a program commonly found in European countries.

New research from the Berkeley Early Childhood Think Tank says it’s possible to finance Newsom’s loftiest goals – just not in the way the governor has proposed.

Researcher Bruce Fuller says that rather than a one-time cash infusion, the group would prefer to see long-term investments tied to existing funding mechanisms that wouldn’t be at the mercy of a future economic downswing.

“It’s better to put in stable financing than propose one-time funding for a scattered set of programs,” Fuller said. “There are sizable shortfalls in how many families have access to high-quality childcare. The governor has raised hope that he can solve this. But it could end up being a disappointment.”

The think tank’s proposal has four core suggestions, including expanding transitional kindergarten to some 50,000 students and tying their attendance to the Proposition 98 funding guarantee. Prop. 98 allocates money for California schools adjusted on the basis of student enrollment. In recent years, enrollment has declined, leaving worries about a funding shortfall.

Fuller said including more 4-year-olds would generate money for education and stave off the shortfall while allowing more students to find placements in high-quality programs. The think tank previously found that Fresno County not only has a shortage of daycare and preschool spots, but that the San Joaquin Valley’s growing birth rate is likely to exacerbate the problem.

“Many of these initiatives are affordable given our budget, but we need to be prudent. We should be building out the infrastructure to fund these programs long-term,” Fuller said. “The surplus won’t last forever.”

Ken Kapphahn, a fiscal and policy analyst with the Legislative Analyst’s Office, said that while the state would have to fund the expansion of programs for 4-year-olds, enrolling an additional 50,000 students could mean earning additional money while also resetting the clock on the funding shortfall, which kicks in after two years of enrollment decline.

“It’s possible that the growth in the minimum funding guarantee would be more than the costs associated with expanding the programs,” Kapphahn said. “To some, this is the best of both worlds.”

But Steve Ward, legislative analyst for Clovis Unified, says he worries that school districts already facing cuts would end up responsible for educating additional students when they simply cannot afford it. Convincing the Legislature to offer more than the minimum funding guarantee would be one way to pay for preschool and K-12 education.

“We should not be pitting preschool and K-12 programs against each other for limited resources within Prop. 98,” Ward said.

The case for one-time funding

Michele Cantwell-Copher, administrator for early care and education for the Office of the Fresno County Superintendent of Schools, said she’s reassured that Newsom is proposing one-time funding, much of it to support proven programs, such as training more teachers and expanding full-day kindergarten.

“Anybody who’s watching the economy now has noticed we seem to be heading for recession. We should gently ease people in to the idea in the face of our volatile economic status,” Copher said. “And once you see the investment and its impact, there is inspiration to invest more.”

Copher said the $750 million allocated to full-day kindergarten is particularly important to lower-income parents, many of whom often don’t enroll their children in partial-day kindergarten because they’re unable to pick them up in the middle of the workday.

Other components of the plan, which include in-home visits for new parents, are already in line with Fresno County’s Cradle to Career endeavors, Copher said. Cradle to Career is a partnership of school districts, health care organizations and others, whose programs emphasize kindergarten readiness and early literacy.

“As for how ready Fresno County is for expanded early learning, I think you won’t find any resistance here,” Copher said.

Lupe Jamie, director of the Lighthouse for Children, an early learning center in downtown Fresno, said the facility is anxiously awaiting the governor’s budget proposal to see the definition of universal preschool. She said she hopes that the investment will allow the center to offer placements for working-class families who don’t qualify for subsidized care but can’t afford the full tuition, which can be as much as $1,200 per month for infants.

Jaime also said she sees the benefits of both a one-time expenditure and a long-term funding mechanism, as well as potential drawbacks to both. For one, programs for 4-year-olds tend to be partial-day, and expanding access to them could leave them under-attended as parents are unable to adjust to the schedule.

But the money does need to be steady, she said, so 3-year-olds who attend a quality preschool don’t lose their spots as 4- and 5-year-olds the next time belts are tightened.

“I hope we’re mindful of the dollars we’re investing, and that they’ve been thought through for the future, so they’re not the first ones cut,” she said. “During the last recession, our funding was some of the first to get cut, and we still haven’t recovered.”

Other proposals

The New York Times reported Monday that Newsom also is expected to propose six months of paid parental leave for California families – the most of any state in the nation – but that the plan does not include a way to pay for it.

One possibility would be to raise the state disability income tax by one-tenth of one percent, generating $750 million in revenue, according to Fuller.

Fuller said that the money could either be spent to expand parental leave to more families who currently don’t take advantage of it, or to allow low-income families to take home their full pay while on leave.

“If the 70 to 75 percent of your income that you get while you’re on leave doesn’t allow you to put food on the table, you’re not going to take it,” Fuller said.

The think tank’s proposal said the tax increase could allow the state to reach up to 100,000 more families without dipping into the general fund.

Using facilities bonds to build early learning centers is another way that school districts and cities can support preschool and transitional kindergarten, the report said. Fresno Unified has used money from bond measures for a kindergarten building at Figarden Elementary that includes both general and special education classrooms.

“Districts like L.A. Unified have pioneered the use of local revenue bonds to support early learning centers,” the Berkeley report says. “The legislature can broaden this approach to finance new child- care and pre-k slots for infants, toddlers and preschoolers statewide.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee

Aleksandra Appleton covers schools for the Fresno Bee. She grew up in Fresno before attending UC San Diego and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.