Preschool must be priority for all California kids

Sacramento Bee file

It’s a well-worn cliche, but it’s true. One of the smartest things anyone can do is invest in the future.

Gov. Jerry Brown, willing to follow that adage on many important issues, has the chance to do it for education by signing Assembly Bill 47. Authored by Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, the bill would go a long way toward ensuring every 4-year-old in California can attend preschool.

It doesn’t go all the way, though. AB 47, also known as the Preschool for All Act, doesn’t quite live up to its name because it doesn’t carve out an annual budget appropriation. Instead, lawmakers would have to approve funding for it each year – a compromise meant to address concerns about the low hundreds of millions of dollars it would cost to fund such a comprehensive preschool plan. Such is politics.

What the legislation does do is create an annual framework for making preschool funding a priority.

That’s important because, right now, low-income parents of about 32,000 children can’t afford it. This is true even though California has spent millions of dollars in recent years to undo recession-era cuts and boost enrollment in the State Preschool Program. With this year’s appropriation, about 158,000 poor kids have access to preschool.

That’s a big number, but tens of thousands of children remain left out. The research is clear about the benefits of preschool, to the students and society at large.

Studies show that children who participate in high-quality preschool programs are more likely than their counterparts to succeed in school and graduate from high school on time. As teenagers and adults, they are less likely to commit crimes.

This is especially true for children from low-income families, where parents often have lower levels of educational attainment, and are less likely to have the time or resources to properly nurture the cognitive development of their kids in the crucial first five years of life.

This achievement gap between rich and poor students is already evident.

In the first go-round of Common Core testing, for example, only 31 percent of kids from low-income families met or exceeded the standard in English and 21 percent did so in math. By comparison, 64 percent of students from wealthy families met or exceeded the standard in English and 53 percent did so in math.

California should be doing everything it can to put this next generation on the right path. The first step is to increase access to preschool for disadvantaged students – the ones most likely to fall through the cracks. We laud the governor’s tight-fisted nature. But in this instance, investing a little can reap big returns.