Dan Walters

Dan Walters: California preschool spending a big conflict

Children’s advocates and other groups are pressing Gov. Jerry Brown again this year to spend more on child care and other preschool services.
Children’s advocates and other groups are pressing Gov. Jerry Brown again this year to spend more on child care and other preschool services. Associated Press file

In the broadest sense, this year’s version of the annual budget wrangle pits Gov. Jerry Brown, who wants to keep a lid on spending and build budget reserves, against his fellow Democrats in the Legislature, who want to spend more.

The sharpest skirmish is likely to be over demands to ramp up spending on a confusing welter of “early childhood” programs that serve nearly a half-million children now and cost about $3.5 billion.

Brown proposes only token increases in spending on child care and preschool programs, while urging the Legislature to shift to a voucher system for the former and combine several programs into block grants for the latter.

But a broad coalition of unions, children’s advocates and women legislators wants a big increase in spending – at least $800 million more in the next fiscal year – and a pathway to a wide and universally available array of early childhood services whose cost could eventually reach, or even surpass, $10 billion a year.

Brown clearly is leery about moving further down that path, seeing it as a budget-busting new entitlement. But with the state’s resurgent economy and high income tax rates generating billions of extra dollars, expansion advocates believe this is the year to make a major push.

They seem to have the public behind them, according to a new Public Policy Institute of California poll – supporting more early childhood spending even if it means slowing the diversion of revenues into reserves.

The advocates include the state Assembly’s new speaker, Anthony Rendon, who in his pre-political life ran agencies that provide early child services.

Rendon leaves no doubt that expanding those services is his highest priority. He is highly critical of Brown’s proposals to hold the line on spending and reorganize the delivery of services with less involvement from Sacramento via block grants and vouchers.

He and other advocates note that during the Great Recession, when state budgets were leaking red ink, more than $1 billion was slashed from child care services, mostly to the poor. “I do intend to ask for significantly more,” Rendon told the Sacramento Press Club recently. A coalition of advocates got a friendly reception when they told a legislative budget subcommittee they want $800 million more just to catch up from previous cuts.

The Legislature’s budget analyst has weighed in, endorsing Brown’s proposal for child care vouchers and proposing “a single, coherent preschool program designed to provide access to all low-income and at-risk children … and offer a full-day option for working families.”

The issue, however, goes beyond both money and structure.

While advocates insist that early childhood services can lead to better outcomes once children enter the K-12 system, it’s not clear that the benefits are lasting, particularly for kids from low-income families.

Moreover, much of the expansion push is coming from unions that want to organize child care workers and raise their wages.

Finally, there is an element of class conflict. While many affluent parents already pay for private child care and prekindergarten services, they are eligible for some governmental and/or subsidized services such as “transitional kindergarten,” and with a limited number of slots, they may be displacing low-income children.

Brown would concentrate funds on low-income kids, which then might force affluent families to pay more.