Lawmakers consider expansion of state pre-school program

Lawmakers consider expansion of state pre-school program

(Calif.) A bill pending in the state Senate would broaden qualifications for state-sponsored pre-school, in hopes more families can take advantage of services already paid for.

Although lawmakers provided $46 million two years ago to open some 9,500 new slots in the program, many districts send back money to the state because not enough qualified students applied.

AB 1754 is aimed at solving that problem by expanding the pool of families who are eligible, said the bill’s author Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento.

“We know we don’t serve enough low-income families with quality pre-school,” he said at a hearing late last month. “We don’t serve enough families in general, and yet we still see districts sending money back and slots that go unfilled.”

With a growing body of research showing the benefits of quality preschool, educators and policymakers nationwide have rushed in recent years to increase funding of early learner programs—although there is some disagreement over the lasting impacts of participating in high-quality pre-K.

McCarty’s bill would make a number of changes beginning in the 2019-20 school year to the enrollment priority for the pre-school program for schools where at least 40 percent of the students are low-income.

Existing law puts children considered to have been neglected or abused at the head of the line—that would not change.

The second priority would be children from low-income families—that also would not change, except that four-year-olds would not be given first call.

A third pool, which would be new, calls for a certification process for students who qualify for the school meal program to be made eligible for pre-school.

And finally, the bill would allow any remaining openings to be filled without requirement for families to substantiate income.

Although McCarty’s bill is unlikely to add cost to the state, it is unclear if Gov. Jerry Brown is supportive.

Last year, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount, proposed early in the budget process a campaign aimed at expanding services to early learners, especially those in low-income neighborhoods.

While the effort won some concession from the governor, the overall impact was limited.

Last fall, Brown vetoed legislation that would have created a new state grant to improve early learner literacy.

SB 494 by state Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, would have provided money to districts to hire reading specialists or develop other programs to encourage reading skills.

The bill passed out of both houses of the Legislature along party lines, but Brown sided with opponents. In his veto message, the governor simply said that LEAs already have flexibility within the Local Control Funding Formula to provide support to struggling students.