Universal preschool bills advance, and it’s more than just baby steps

Legislation that would significantly expand California’s subsidized preschool program cleared its first committee hearing Wednesday, leaving early childhood education advocates increasingly optimistic that at least the first phase of their long-sought effort will cross the finish line this year.

For years, pressure has mounted at the Capitol to increase access to preschool for the state’s youngest pupils. Advocates say expanding early childhood services would have a powerful ripple effect in addressing the state’s educational and income disparities.

Democratic Assemblyman Kevin McCarty of Sacramento says he views the package of legislation he’s introduced—Assembly Bills 123, 124 and 125—as the first step in a long-term plan to implement free, universal preschool in California.

Currently, the state’s program funds about 175,000 preschool slots for students who come from low-income families at a cost of about $1.2 billion, but there aren’t enough slots to cover all eligible students. McCarty said Wednesday that his bill would expand eligibility to nearly 70,000 children aged 3 and 4. The exact cost of that expansion isn’t clear but, for comparison, expanding the program by 100,000 slots had an estimated price tag of $1.5 billion.

“When addressing issues like childhood poverty, (preschool) matters,” McCarty said at a press conference prior to Wednesday’s hearing. “We owe it to our kids, our economy and our future to do better. Unfortunately thousands of California kids enter kindergarten without pre-K and they start behind and they never catch up.”

McCarty has said he envisions the rollout of such an expansion first targeting the state’s neediest students while also increasing access to free preschool to families who are considered to be in the middle class, but aren’t able to afford tuition costs, which range in the thousands.

“We’d like to have universal preschool for everybody, but frankly we can’t afford it,” McCarty said. “So we should start with the kids who need it the most.”

McCarty’s package of bills would also overhaul and increase the state’s reimbursement rates for childcare and preschool providers in an effort to increase quality and “pay them [providers] wages that aren’t, frankly, fast food wages,” McCarty said. The median hourly pay for preschool teachers in California—$16 in 2017—is significantly lower than that of a kindergarten ($38 per hour) or elementary school teacher ($45 per hour), according to a recent collection of Stanford studies.

There appears to be no shortage of support in the Legislature for expanding preschool.  Leaders in the Assembly and Senate, including Speaker Anthony Rendon, have supported previous attempts to expand preschool access.

Gov. Jerry Brown was resistant to previous efforts and generally wary of tacking on costly programs to the state’s budget as California recovered from a crippling recession.

Since then, the state’s finances have trended upward—to the tune of an estimated $21 billion surplus in January—and there’s a new governor in the Capitol’s executive office.

McCarty and supporters have pointed to Newsom, a father of four young kids who earmarked $1.8 billion for early childhood programs in his first budget proposal, as a core reason why they believe 2019 is the “time that California steps up and fulfills the promise of pre-K for all.”

“It’s undeniable. Kids who have access to pre-K are better prepared for kindergarten and beyond,” said Republican Sen. Ling Ling Chang of Diamond Bar. “If we want to close the achievement gap and make California a public education leader, [preschool] has to be a part of the equation.”

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