Universal pre-K for 4-year-olds moves forward

Universal pre-K for 4-year-olds moves forward

(Calif.) An ambitious plan to expand eligibility for transitional kindergarten to all four-year-olds statewide won cautious backing last week from a key legislative panel.

AB 837 by state Senator Bill Dodd, D-Davis, would phase-in the expansion beginning with the 2020-21 school year, but concerns over cost and quality of service could jeopardize the bill’s progress.

“Our publically-supported child-care pre-school system lost $1 billion during the great recession and funding remains 20 percent below pre-recession levels,” Dodd said at a hearing before the Senate Education Committee last week. “Our state is missing the opportunity to close the achievement gap with its most vulnerable young children, when those are best addressed before they enter kindergarten.”

Education services for children under the age of five have become hot topics both in California and other states, as well as in the nation’s capital. Research has generally shown that a well-constructed program for supporting younger students can be very valuable–although the gains are not always sustainable if the program components are not also carried forward.

The state spends about $3.6 billion annually on child care and preschool services primarily through four major programs: voucher-based centers; state preschools, transitional kindergarten and the federal Head Start program.

In a report last year, the non-partisan Legislative Analyst estimated that between 20-and 40 percent of four year olds from families below the poverty line were unserved by the existing system.

Dodd’s bill is intended to close that gap. Although there currently is no official cost tied to the bill, a similar proposal from 2015 was estimated to add between $1.5 billion and $1.8 billion annually to the state education budget.

While most of the members of the committee seemed supportive of the general concept, most of the opposition to the bill stems from questions over the bill’s teacher-to-student ratios and the certification of the staff.

Senator Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, who is also a licensed pediatrician, pointed out that the research shows that “high-quality” pre-school education produces better performance outcomes.

“Low-quality pre-school doesn’t help,” he said. “It has to be high-quality. I do share some of the concerns of the opposition about whether expanding pre-K is really going to be expanding access or just creating displacement.”

Branche Jones, a lobbyist representing KinderCare Education, which has more than 1,300 learning centers nationally—including 200 in California—said they are not opposed to the idea of expanding services but want to make sure existing programs are not disrupted.

“I think you need to look at transportation issues as well as facility issues,” he told the committee. “I don’t know that those are things that have been considered.”

Senator Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, chair of the committee, seemed sympathetic to what Dodd is trying to do with the bill. At one point, he challenged the critics to explain how it would be a step backward by providing services to a population that currently is not being addressed.

“This is like an argument that because everyone can’t fly the Concorde, we shouldn’t have an airline system,” he said.

But Allen also said Dodd will need to work with the opposition to come up with a bill that can ultimately go to the governor.

The panel voted 4-1 to move the legislation forward.