Students listen during their first grade class as teacher Caroline Archibald teaches their social emotinal learning lesson for the day at Redwood Shores Elementary School in Redwood City, Calif., on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015. (John Green/Bay Area News Group)
Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom's plans to expand early childhood education include a ramp-up of kindergarten classrooms—and kid-sized bathrooms to go with them. Photo by John Green/Bay Area News Group

In summary

Before Gavin Newsom can expand preschool, California will first have to get to full-day kindergarten by building classrooms with those little toilets attached.

Before Gavin Newsom can reach his audacious goal of universal preschool, California will first have to get to full-day kindergarten. And full-day kindergarten means having to build a lot more classrooms with little adjacent toilets to meet all those 5-year-olds’ bladder needs.

California is among dozens of states that don’t require full-day kindergarten, and despite recent legislative incentives, the state still pays school districts the same amount for student attendance regardless of whether they offer half-day or full-day programs. As a result, an estimated 30 percent of schools in California don’t offer full-day kindergarten.

Before California can ramp up universal preschool, the state needs to ramp up the number of kindergarten classrooms with age-appropriate bathrooms.

On Thursday the governor’s office proposed spending roughly $1.8 billion on a suite of early education initiatives. Most of that money, around $1.5 billion, would be one-time funding that takes advantage of a projected $14.8 billion surplus in the 2019-20 budget year.

Of that, Newsom wants to use $750 million to expand kindergarten facilities. This money would be aimed at expanding classrooms and infrastructure to offer full-day programs in schools where only half-day kindergarten is offered. Finance officials estimate the money is enough to build 750 new classrooms and retrofit 1,400 existing classrooms.*

Many schools split limited classroom space to provide only a choice of morning or afternoon sessions because they lack the accommodations for more students. The abbreviated school day often leaves parents scrambling for pickup in the middle of the day or coordinating a patchwork of after-school programs.

Part of the problem is that kindergarten classrooms are different from those for older grades.

“Little kids need extra space to move around in. They shouldn’t just be crammed into rows of desks,” said Hannah Melnick, an early childhood learning analyst at the Learning Policy Institute, a research and policy organization based in Palo Alto.

“They also need age-appropriate play structures. Also, you need to have bathrooms and hand-washing stations available that are not required for older children.”

Her colleague, Beth Meloy, stresses the latter.

“It seems like a strange point to make, but the bathrooms need to be ideally connected to the classroom so that young children can respond to their physical needs rather than walk down the hall alone, which they’re too young for,” Meloy said.

A toilet in a kindergarten class.

Another factor is population growth. New research from the University of California, Berkeley, and the American Institutes for Research shows that Southern California is experiencing a decline in the number of children aged 3 and 4. However, that age group is growing in the Central Valley, where many families have moved to escape the high cost of housing. That suggests a need for more kindergarten classrooms in some parts but not all of the state.

It’s unclear how many classrooms Newsom’s proposed $750 million will cover (the governor’s budget proposal is likely to contain more details), but advocates say the plan takes a first step toward expanding full-day kindergarten by creating the foundation.

Beyond kindergarten, Newsom wants to commit another $747 million for child care training and expansion of facilities already subsidized by the state. He also will propose a three-year ramp-up for expanding pre-kindergarten programs, starting with a $125 million investment.

Advocates say the long-term benefits of high-quality preschool and early learning result in higher rates of graduation, college attendance and employment. They say young people who have had the advantage of good preschools are also less likely to come into contact with the juvenile justice system or require academic remediation.

What remains a big unknown is where the ongoing funding will come from to support early learning programs, once the infrastructure is constructed.

During the recession, funding for early learning programs dropped by nearing $1 billion; a quarter of child care slots were slashed between 2008 and 2013. While state spending on education has recovered, overall funding for early childhood and child care programs remains below pre-recession levels, according to the Learning Policy Institute.

As CALmatters’ education reporter Ricardo Cano noted, the pent-up demand among education advocates for early learning programs is high after ambitious proposals either stalled or failed in last year’s legislative session. One unsuccessful proposal to extend transitional kindergarten to all 4-year-olds, SB 837, was estimated to cost as much as $2.4 billion annually.

The newly sworn state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond writes that he intends to “put the needs of the youngest Californians and their families front and center.”

And Newsom, a father of four children under age 10, spoke of his own plans to let his perspective as a parent inform his policy proposals, as CALmatters political columnist Laurel Rosenhall captured from his inauguration speech.

“It will take a lot of political will,” Meloy, the early education analyst, said. “We’re not going to be able to expand high-quality early learning overnight. It costs a lot of money.”

*Updated 1/10/2019.

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Judy serves as hub editor of the California Divide project, a five-newsroom collaboration covering economic inequality. Prior to editing, she reported on state finance, workforce and economic issues. Her...