Most California voters think the state should increase the availability of preschool for the state’s 4-year-olds, according to a Field Poll conducted in partnership with EdSource.
Of the 1,000 registered voters polled, 55 percent said increasing the availability of preschool to 4-year-olds in California was “very important,” while 24 percent said it was “somewhat important.” Among parents of children 5 or younger, 70 percent said increasing the availability of preschool was “very important” and 20 percent said it was “somewhat important.”
Providing more publicly funded preschool opportunities has become a major issue in California. State legislators recently introduced a bill, SB 837, that would provide all 4-year-olds in the state with the option of attending transitional kindergarten, which is provided to children who don’t qualify for kindergarten because they turn 5 in the first three months of the school year.
It has also become a national issue since President Barack Obama named it a top priority in his 2013 State of the Union Address and repeated the call for expanding state preschool programs in this year’s address.
“I’m not surprised that 79 percent of Californians believe that providing early childhood education in preschool is (‘very’ or ‘somewhat’) important,” said Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, who is the lead author of SB 837, which is currently before the Senate Appropriations Committee.
“Californians intuitively understand that the more we do for people up front, the more successful (the state is) going to be long term,” Steinberg said.
Despite their support for expanding the program, only one in four voters polled said they had heard of transitional kindergarten, which began in the 2012-13 school year. When it was explained, 60 percent said they supported it, and 25 percent said they opposed it. Fifty-seven percent said expanding transitional kindergarten to all 4-year-olds would be “worth the investment” of $1.4 billion annually once the program was completely rolled out. Thirty-four percent said it was “not worth the investment.”
California registered voters also strongly supported restoring the $1 billion cut from child care and state-funded preschool during the budget battles over the last several years. So far, $55 million has been restored since the end of the recession. Sixty-four percent of those polled said they were in favor of restoring the funds, while 28 percent said they were opposed to doing so.
A major issue in the debate about how to expand public preschool programs in California and nationally is whether preschool should be offered to all children or only to those from low-income families. A majority of those polled, 51 percent, said they preferred an expansion of free preschool programs that would serve all children rather than a targeted program for low-income children. Thirty-eight percent said free preschool should be expanded only for low-income children. Currently fewer than half of low-income children in California have access to publicly funded preschool programs.
Deborah Kong, president of Early Edge California, a major backer of the Steinberg bill, said she was gratified to see support for universal preschool, which would be available to students regardless of family income. Providing schooling to some students and not others is not the way the state provides public education, Kong said.
“(The bill) doesn’t say that if you come from a particular zip code that you get public school,” she said.
The poll also asked voters how they felt about what the state is doing to provide preschool opportunities. Fifty-six percent said the state “should be doing more,” 25 percent said it was “doing about the right amount,” and 12 percent said it was “already doing too much.”
Adonai Mack, legislative advocate for the Association of California School Administrators, testified against the Steinberg bill at a hearing last week. He said the strong support for public preschool didn’t surprise him. There was support for the idea among his members as well, but many of the principals and superintendents he represents are concerned about costs, he said. Credentialing new teachers and adding classroom facilities to expand transitional kindergarten were not included in the current cost estimate for the program, Mack said. His members have reviewed the list of requirements for the new program and Mack said many worried the extra funds provided by the state to run the program would be insufficient.
“Some of the mandatory requirements are going to cost money,” Mack said.
For example, the requirement to have two paid staff in transitional kindergarten classrooms will be costly and could exceed the allocated funding, he said. It’s unclear what impact the support for public preschool shown in the EdSource-Field Poll will have on the outcome of the legislative battle in Sacramento.
“It helps, certainly,” Steinberg said. “We represent the people and their voices and opinions matter.”
This poll was conducted by the Field Research Corporation in partnership with EdSource and underwritten by the Heising-Simons Foundation. Read the complete poll results here. Lillian Mongeau covers early childhood education. Contact her or follow her @lrmongeau.