California could nearly double its spending on public preschool with an influx of federal funding if the president’s proposal to significantly increase the money available for early childhood programs passes Congress, according to data released by the U.S. Department of Education on Tuesday.
Since President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address in January, early learning has become the centerpiece of the administration’s education policy agenda. The president has proposed a federal program, funded by an increased tobacco tax, that would partner with states to expand access to and quality of public preschool programs for low- and moderate-income 4-year-olds. The program would also provide funding for expanded infant and toddler care. Both initiatives would cost $75 billion in new early learning funds over the next decade.
If approved for participation in the Preschool for All program, California would be eligible for an additional $334 million in federal preschool funding with a required state match of $33.4 million, according to federal estimates. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that this would allow the state to serve an additional 41,000 children. The department did not specify if these children would be served by a full- or half-day program. In 2011-2012, California spent $386 million to provide half-day state preschool to more than 200,000 children.
The information released Tuesday offers the first glimpse at what individual states could expect to receive under the president’s proposal – which faces significant obstacles in a fractured Congress. The funding estimate is based on a state’s current population of 4-year-olds in families living at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, or $47,100 annually for a family of four. California ranks near the top of all states on that measure, with nearly 1.4 million qualifying 4-year-olds, according to Children Now, a national organization advocating for more public funding for children’s issues.
The current state program is not fully funded. Only about half of eligible 4-year-olds are enrolled, said Deborah Kong, the federal policy analyst at Early Edge California, an advocacy organization focused on increasing services for children from infants to age 8. “We’re not even serving the number of kids who are eligible,” she said. “Any sort of dent we can make in that 50 percent would be huge.”
The president’s proposal, called Preschool For All, would make another $20.9 million available to California for home-visiting programs. The programs send nurses, social workers or other professionals to the homes of low-income parents of infants and toddlers to teach parents about early language acquisition, nutrition and safe sleeping habits.
States would not be required to accept the federal money or participate in the program, and questions remain over how it would be implemented.
The president’s proposal requires states to put up some matching funds to qualify for federal preschool money, and it’s not clear if the money California currently spends on preschool programs would count toward the state’s match. Nor is it clear if California’s current state preschool program will meet the quality standards the federal government plans to require from states receiving funding. Roberto Rodriguez, the president’s adviser on education, said Tuesday that he could not yet comment on upcoming legislation that might clarify these issues.
The administration did outline the quality standards states must meet in order to participate in the Preschool for All program in a budget justification document sent to Congress in mid-April.California’s state preschool program currently meets about half of the quality requirements, so it is difficult to tell if the state would qualify for participation in the program in year one. The administration estimates that only 12 to 15 states will meet the standards initially. The budget request also calls for competitive grants to help states bring their programs into compliance and to begin to receive their portion of the Preschool for All money.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Tuesday that spending money on early childhood education is “an investment, not an expense.” The proposed expansion of publicly funded preschool is expected to be hotly debated when legislation attempting to enact the president’s plan reaches the floor of the House and Senate later this summer. The proposal would increase the federal tax on tobacco products from $1.01 to $1.95 per pack.
This story was updated on June 5, 2013 at 12:13 p.m.