Democrats return to the California Capitol on Monday with their strongest political advantage in decades poised to fulfill a huge item on their list of pent-up demands: Vastly expanded access to preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds.
Their plan comes with a big price tag, a problem that has doomed past proposals, most recently with outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown. But with huge legislative majorities and Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom, who called for more spending on early education in his campaign, they see an opportunity.
“There’s no better place to invest… There’s undisputed evidence that shows this is a fantastic remedy,” said Democratic Assemblyman Kevin McCarty of Sacramento. He plans to introduce a nearly $2 billion package of bills Monday to give access to preschool to all low-income 4-year-olds and more 3-year-olds.
Early childhood education has been linked to myriad positive outcomes, from lower rates of incarceration to higher pay.
“We know that the first 2,000 days build the critical foundation for a child’s readiness for school and life,” said Donna Hoffman Cullinan, campaign director at Moms Rising, which promotes economic security for families. “Focusing on those early days has such an essential return.”
California has increased the capacity of its publicly-funded preschool program in recent years, but McCarty says it’s still behind other states. The National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University ranks California 13th in state spending on preschool and 21st in total preschool spending, which also includes local and federal money.
Lawmakers have been working to expand preschool access dramatically for years, but Brown’s interest in saving for an impending recession curtailed their efforts. Less than half of children from low-income families in California are in high-quality preschool programs largely because there are many eligible children but not enough space available, Cullinan said.
McCarty’s proposal is not universal preschool, which many advocates have sought.
McCarty’s main bill would expand the state’s existing preschool program by about 50 percent to serve roughly 250,000 low-income kids. It will likely cost about $1.3 billion dollars over three years, McCarty said. He’s also introducing bills to fund preschool construction and increase pay for preschool teachers.
McCarty said he and Newsom have talked about the issue generally, but not the specifics of his McCarty’s plan. Newsom characterized preschool as a priority, but told McCarty proposals must be affordable.
“He said we need to be reasonable,” McCarty said. “We need to live within our means, so I think this approach is really doable because it is targeted.”
Under the proposal, children would be eligible if they live in an area where at least 70 percent of students fall below a certain income level, generally less than $47,000 per year for a family of four. Children whose families make less than 85 percent of the state’s median income are already eligible for the program.
Targeting low-income families will expand access for the kids who face the biggest barriers to attending preschool, he said. The proposal would also create spots for some children from middle-income families who live in high-poverty areas.
The money would go to preschools run by school districts and nonprofits.
Seventy percent of young mothers are in the workforce but 35 percent of them leave after having kids because they can’t afford childcare or preschool, Cullinan said. Supporters of early education say affordable childcare and preschool are ultimately important steps in establishing economic security for all families in California.
“This is a direct impact on our economy and on the success of the future of our state,” Cullinan said.
Stanford University Professor Deborah Stipek, an early childhood education expert, thinks more investment in preschool is essential, but said she worries targeting only low-income families could have negative effects.
The state preschools’ income requirements effectively segregate low-income children, she said. A better approach would be to provide financial assistance to families on a sliding scale, so children attending preschool together come from a range of backgrounds, Stipek said.
Research that has shown high-quality preschool can have dramatic benefits for children, but low-quality programs can have little to no effect, she said. Some schools provide nurturing programs that foster basic reading and math knowledge and keep children engaged, Stipek said. But others are lacking and have high staff turnover because they pay teachers so little.
For parents looking for a good preschool to send their children, Stipek recommends looking for programs with experienced staff and clear methods to help children learn, such as reading to them. When visiting schools, parents should see that teachers get down at children’s eye level and listen to them, Stipek said.
“I have seen some absolutely outstanding programs, and I have seen some very mediocre programs,” she said. “My concern is that while we expand access, we need to also expand quality.”
One of the bills McCarty is introducing would increase the amount of money the state provides preschools per pupil and raise the standards required for preschools to participate in the program. McCarty said the additional money would help schools pay teachers more than the very low rates most currently make and fund more training for them. The average preschool worker earns $13.94 an hour, according to a recent University of California, Berkeley report that cites the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
McCarty also hopes to secure $500 million to construct and improve preschool buildings to accommodate additional children. He’s proposing putting bond measure to voters in 2020 or using money from the expected budget surplus.