Early Learning

Early education advocates seek more support from governor


young girl working on puzzle

Advocates hope to convince the governor to put more focus on early education programs, like this state-funded preschool program at the Creative Montessori Learning Center in East Palo Alto. File photo by Lillian Mongeau, EdSource Today

Gov. Jerry Brown has been lauded for major reforms that are restoring K-12 schools to fiscal health, but advocates say he hasn’t made anywhere near the same kind of commitment to funding education for children before they enter kindergarten.

As state revenues continue to grow, many early education advocates have begun to ask: When will it be our turn?

“It’s not as if (Brown’s) doing nothing for education, but he doesn’t show evidence of understanding the importance of getting it right from the start,” said Gay Macdonald, executive director of UCLA’s Early Care and Education program.

Early education has become a major issue nationally. President Barack Obama and many of the country’s governors have made it a focus, pointing to research showing that children who attend high-quality preschool are less likely to be placed in special education, more likely to graduate high school on time and less likely to become involved in the criminal justice system as adults, among other benefits.

Yet Gov. Jerry Brown – called “America’s Greatest Education Governor” earlier this year by the National Education Association for his commitment to public education – has been largely silent on early childhood education.

The governor declined to be interviewed for this article. His press office issued a statement saying that early education was “among” the range of education issues Brown meets with his advisers about.

“As we climb our way out of the $27 billion budget hole we inherited, we’ll continue to consider and make targeted investments, while maintaining the fiscal discipline necessary to avoid the boom and bust of the past decade,” Brown spokesman Evan Westrop told EdSource Today.

Several other sources close to the governor declined to be interviewed about Brown’s views on early education and how they might factor into his budgeting priorities.

$55 million restored

Source: Overview of State's Child Care and Development System, Oct. 2012, Legislative Analyst's Office

Click to enlarge. Source: Overview of State’s Child Care and Development System, Oct. 2012, Legislative Analyst’s Office

Of the nearly $1 billion in state preschool and child care funding lost since the recession began in 2008, $55 million was restored by the 2013 state budget.

Early versions of Brown’s budget did not contain any new money for early education, which includes a range of services for young children subsidized by the state including child care and preschool. But the budget approved by the Legislature asked for new money for the programs and he granted most of it — $25 million dedicated for state-funded preschool spots and another $30 million for child care.

Brown cautioned advocates in his 2013-14 budget not to expect the money again next year: “While I am sustaining this augmentation for the preschool program, I am doing so on a one-time basis. Providing this increase on an ongoing basis would reduce future resources available for K-14 programs.”

The funding approved by Brown has already allowed the California Department of Education to reopen half-day spots for 8,300 children in preschools wholly funded by the state in the coming year, said Nancy Remley, an administrator in the child development division of the California Department of Education.

“We are so pleased that the legislature took this very important step to begin to restore funding,” Remley said. Still, she said, the current restoration “is not enough.” Even when the program was funded at 2008-09 levels, Remley said, “it wasn’t enough to begin to serve all the children who were eligible.”

All children whose families earn 75 percent of the state’s median income, or about $46,000 a year for a family of four, are eligible for public preschool services. At last count, in 2009, there were more than 200,000 families on the waiting list for services, Remley said. There is no longer such a statewide list, however, as funding to maintain it was eliminated during the recession.

‘Next logical step’

Brown quips after signing the state budget in June. Standing from left: Assembly Budget Chair Bob Blumenfield, Assembly Speaker John Perez, Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, Senate Budget Chair Mark Leno.

Brown, surrounded by lawmakers, quips after signing the state budget in June.

Early education advocates are quick to acknowledge that Brown has had his hands full fixing the state’s budget crisis. And they have applauded the governor’s work to promote passage of Proposition 30, which raised taxes to help fund education, and the Local Control Funding Formula, his plan to reform the state’s school finance system, including targeting funds to low-income students and English learners.

“The next logical step is to turn our sights to early education,” said David Rattray, senior vice president of the education and workforce division of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.

Rattray, who has spoken to the governor about expanding public funding for early education, said he doesn’t think Brown’s willingness to sign off on cuts in the past means he’s fundamentally opposed to future investments. The cuts, which every branch of state government dealt with to some extent, were part of the cost of recovering from the Great Recession, Rattray said, and not necessarily an indication of the governor’s priorities.

At the very least, Rattray said, the governor may feel he owes it to those who helped him pass the funding formula, the centerpiece of Brown’s education budget. The L.A. Chamber was “intimately engaged and committed” to passing the new funding formula, he said.

“In those conversations we shared with (Brown) that we hoped and expected in this coming year that we could turn our sights to early education,” Rattray said. “We feel we got a favorable response, or at least an openness.”

Other governors have been more explicit in setting early education as a priority. Several governors – Democrat Deval Patrick of Massachusetts and Republicans Rick Snyder of Michigan and Mike Pence of Indiana, for example – mentioned increased funding for early education in their state of the state address or in their comments on the state budget in January. Not Brown.

After Brown’s State of the State and budget addresses in January, both of which focused heavily on investing in K-12 education, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson followed up with a statement encouraging a stronger focus on early education.

“I do believe that early education programs — cut deeply in recent years — deserve to share in this recovery as well,” Torlakson said in one of his statements delivered in response to the governor’s proposed budget.

President Obama is also calling for more investment in early education with the long-term aim of offering universal public preschool for all 4-year-olds. His Preschool for All initiative calls for $75 billion to be spent over the next decade in grants for states to create or expand their state preschool programs for low-income students and bring those programs up to federal quality standards. The initiative, meant to be paid for with an increased federal tobacco tax, faces a tough fight in Congress. If it does pass, California stands to nearly double its current state preschool funding with a possible influx of up to $334 million in the first year of the program, according to estimates from the U.S. Department of Education.

Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource

Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource

Building support

“That is a really interesting entry point for (Brown),” said Kris Perry, director of the national First Five Years Fund, which advocates for expanded early childhood programs. Perry, the long-time director of First 5, California’s program for providing and improving existing public services for children under 5, is optimistic that Brown will come to embrace the federal initiative.

“He has not as yet stepped up and said this is a high-priority issue,” Perry said. But, she pointed out, Brown did approve California’s application for a federal Race to the Top grant for early education in 2011, which ended up being the only application from California that was approved for funding. The grant has since provided $75 million to develop a quality rating system for preschools, create a statewide plan for expanding early childhood services, expand professional development opportunities for early childhood educators and pay for additional home visiting programs for new mothers, among other initiatives.

Brown’s willingness to sign off on the Race to the Top application makes Perry think he might be willing to take the steps necessary to qualify for the federal preschool funding proposed by Obama. That could include raising qualifications needed to become a state preschool teacher, paying those teachers more and offering full-day kindergarten to bring the state into compliance with the newly proposed federal regulations. However, for Brown to take that action, Perry said, “It would take a large coalition of folks saying they needed it and wanted it.”

A coalition saying just that has been building in the state with organizations like Early Edge California, (formerly Preschool California) and First 5 working to coordinate the efforts of advocates in different sectors who would like to see more state spending on early education, and can help lobby the Legislature and Brown to make it happen.

Macdonald, of UCLA, has been encouraged by what she sees as a more organized effort to get the message out than she’s become accustomed to over her past several decades working in early childhood education.

“I hope that we can put our voices together to say that the early years are critical,” Macdonald said.

Rattray is optimistic Brown can be convinced.

“He’s done such heavy lifting in K-12,” Rattray said. “He’d be the last to want to see that diluted in any way.”

Lillian Mongeau covers early childhood education. Contact her or follow her @lrmongeau.

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