A campaign to support President Barack Obama’s universal preschool initiative was launched in Sacramento on Tuesday by early childhood education advocates, a coalition of superintendents from around the state and Assemblymember Susan Bonilla, D-Concord.
At H. W. Harkness Elementary School in Sacramento, campaign leaders unveiled an open letter to the president, signed by 39 superintendents and 16 transitional kindergarteners, urging him to “craft a robust budget proposal to put our earliest learners first.”
“It’s really saying (to Obama), ‘We are going to be there for you, so carry forth,’” said Catherine Atkin, executive director of Early Edge California, formerly Preschool California, which advocates for more money and higher quality in early education.
The campaign has two aims: to help push Obama’s proposal to expand preschool through Congress and to put California on track to compete for federal preschool funding should it become available.
In order to be competitive, the California Department of Education must have a plan in place to expand its current preschool program, Bonilla said. To that end, she introduced a non-binding Assembly joint resolution on Monday signaling Legislative support of preschool for all 4-year-olds in California that will go to the floor for a vote in the near future. If approved, the resolution will go to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk and then be passed on to each California-based member of Congress as a sign of the state’s commitment to early childhood education.
“I believe when (the state Legislature) weighs in, our Congressional delegation will pick up the baton,” said Bonilla, a former teacher who has made early childhood education a feature of her legislative agenda.
Atkin said advocates would be taking additional measures to ensure California is seen as “doing its homework” on early education. The campaign aims to restore funding to state preschool and child care programs, which have been cut by $1 billion since 2008, to expand and improve preschool options for 3- and 4-year-olds and to increase home visits and center-based care for children under the age of three.
How much funding, if any, might become available as a result of Obama’s State of the Union proposal to use federal funding to help make preschool available to every 4-year-old in the country is expected to become clearer next week when the administration releases its 2013-14 budget.
Atkin said the launch of the new campaign was scheduled for the week before the budget release and the day before the president is scheduled to visit California. There are plans afoot, she hinted, for someone to hand Obama a copy of the open letter during his travels in the state. The president is expected to attend fundraisers in San Francisco and Atherton on Wednesday and Thursday.
Despite a lack of specifics on Obama’s proposal, “it’s good the states are rallying behind this,” said Bruce Fuller, an education and public policy professor at UC Berkeley who focuses on early education.
Still, California has a host of questions to consider as it pushes for universal preschool, Fuller said. Chief among them is determining whether responsibility for increasing preschool offerings should fall solely to K-12 districts – which face a continuing push to boost test scores – or should be shared with community-based nonprofit providers. About two-thirds of California preschoolers now attend nonprofits, Fuller said.
“Those nonprofits don’t agree that the raison d’être (for preschool) is to raise test scores,” he said. “It’s more about making sure kids are confident in the classroom, making sure they’re developing supportive relationships with their peers, making sure that learning is fun and enjoyable. That’s where the fault lines lie.”
“We all want to expand preschool,” Fuller said, but determining who runs it, how it will best serve the students who need it most, and the philosophy behind how “we really want to nurture kids in California is where people start to disagree.”
Senior editor Michelle Maitre contributed to this report.