During the decades he worked in social services, the next speaker of the California Assembly says he saw the effectiveness of programs to train job seekers and dissolve gangs. None approached the echoing effects of educating young children before they enter kindergarten.
“They made the local schools better. They made parents more involved in their communities and more vigilant,” said Assemblyman Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, who is scheduled to take over as leader early this year. “I could see where that benefits for democracy and just people showing up at the polls.
“Staving off health maladies that often manifest themselves later in a child’s growth or life, you see how these things tend to be caught early in these types of programs,” he continued. “It’s something that has benefits way beyond in-classroom benefits.”
Soon Rendon will be able to throw the full weight of the speaker’s office behind that conviction. As head of the Democratic caucus and a lead player in budget negotiations that launch next week with Gov. Jerry Brown’s initial proposal, Rendon will place a premium on directing more resources to preparing young Californians for school.
“It’s something I think there’s already support for and something, from a leadership perspective, I’m going to make sure is on the top of the agenda,” Rendon said. “Our leadership team, through the budget process and in terms of prioritizing bills that go to the governor’s desk, we’ll have a fair amount of power to do something about this.”
As annual surpluses have refilled California’s depleted budget chest, Democratic lawmakers have pushed to restore or increase social spending lost in the recession. They are increasingly focusing on education and care for the state’s youngest children.
Backed by research showing that learning gaps open early and widen as kids age, advocates call comprehensive early education an important tool to prevent lower-income kids from falling irreversibly behind their peers.
They have an experienced ally in Rendon. Before winning his seat in 2012, he headed an organization, Plaza de la Raza Child Development Services, whose main objective is to prepare children for kindergarten. He dealt with early education efforts while at the Mexican American Opportunity Foundation.
Stabilized budgets have already boosted spending on the state’s suite of early-childhood programs. Spending on state preschool, which serves 3- and 4-year-olds, has rebounded from around $373 million in 2011-12, enough to enroll just under 100,000 kids full time, to around $716 million this year, enough to cover about 158,000 full-time slots. That’s on top of local school districts’ programs that can be funded with local, state, federal or private money.
A spokesman for the Department of Finance said those increases show the Brown administration has ensured young children share in the budget windfall.
“The fact that we’ve been able to bring balance and stability to the state budget has meant the administration has been able to add hundreds of millions of dollars back into childhood spending in recent years,” H.D. Palmer said. “We’re not in the boom-and-bust cycle that caused the deep cuts of the past.”
But advocates for expanded programs have absorbed setbacks. Often it has been a matter of failing to convince Brown, who tends to be more frugal than his fellow Democrats in the Legislature.
“It’s something that the governor has not always been a strong supporter of,” Rendon said of expanding early education.
In 2014, former Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, sought to extend free transitional kindergarten to all 4-year-olds. But “the governor was not enthused about it,” Steinberg said – it would have ultimately cost a projected $1.5 billion – so Steinberg stepped back and secured budget language promising to cover preschool for all 4-year-olds in low-income families.
There is no timeline in law for reaching that goal. Last year, Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, carried legislation to implement the policy by 2018, provided the Legislature appropriated enough money each year. Brown vetoed the bill, saying his administration had already committed to the idea.
“A bill that sets an arbitrary deadline, contingent on a sufficient appropriation, is unnecessary,” Brown wrote in his veto message.
McCarty disagreed, saying the bill would have laid down a marker and “show(ed) we ought to prioritize it in the budget.” A Senate analysis pegged the cost of McCarty’s bill as somewhere in the “low hundreds of millions,” which McCarty called a more realistic goal than the universal preschool Steinberg initially sought.
“Right now in California, we can’t afford it,” McCarty said of covering all kids regardless of income. “So the most important thing we can do if we want to address the achievement gap and income inequality and criminal justice issues is to fund preschool for all low-income kids.”
Rendon has so far carried a pair of unsuccessful bills related to early education, one seeking to allow child care workers to organize for labor negotiations and another to fund child care centers that serve infants and toddlers. The latter was held in the Assembly Appropriations Committee, where costly measures often quietly languish.
The bill’s focus on the youngest children also highlights debate over which group of kids would be the wisest investment for limited dollars.
“Within the early childhood education community, including members of the Legislative Women’s Caucus ... there are some who believe we ought to put more emphasis on zero to three (years) and others who believe we ought to achieve universality for 4-year-olds first as a matter of priority,” Steinberg said.
Rendon said he has studied the research and concluded that kids on the cusp of kindergarten should be first in line.
“It’s a tough call, but I’m more inclined to make sure all 4-year-olds have access,” Rendon said.
Democrats seeking more funding for the youngest children could have to surmount resistance from traditional allies. Last year, teachers’ unions pushed back on the notion of paying for more child care using money allocated under Proposition 98, which sets aside a certain amount of money for schools. Proposition 98 money already funds part-day state preschool and some of full-day state preschool.
“We’re fighting over a limited number of dollars, and it’s a battle being fought throughout the educational community. It’s unfortunate we have to make those kinds of choices,” said Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, co-chair of the women’s caucus, which has trumpeted early education. “Frankly, I think it benefits teachers as well when children come to school ready to learn.”
Budget battles ultimately run through the speaker’s office, and Rendon said he’s sympathetic to the argument, made by organizations such as the California Teachers Association, that Proposition 98 money should go to older kids. “I think K-12 has their own set of challenges,” he said.
But even if that question spurs dissent in Democrats’ ranks, Rendon said he is confident the members he’ll oversee share a common goal.
“There has been some strong support in our caucus” for early education, he said. “In general, it’s something the caucus tends to be favorable of.”