President Barack Obama has yet to issue any cost estimates for his proposal to expand access to preschool for 4-year-olds, but there is one certainty should Congress approve the program: It will be expensive.
California currently serves about one in five of the state’s low-income 4-year-olds in state-funded preschools at a cost of $3,820 per student, according to the California Department of Education. That covers a half day of preschool for 180 days, the length of a regular school year. Some preschool programs offer full-day services and the state spends additional funds to support those programs. The total spent on state-supported preschools in California in 2011-12 was $368 million, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office.
If California were to do what President Obama called for again yesterday in a speech in Decatur, IL – “to make high quality preschool available to every child” – the cost of serving the state’s approximately half million 4-year-olds could amount to $2 billion or more.
For now, the Obama administration is declining to say how much money the federal government might contribute, where the money might come from or how states might qualify to receive that money.
White House Domestic Policy Council director Cecilia Muñoz said yesterday in a briefing for reporters that more details would be provided as to how the president intends to pay for the program when he releases his budget sometime in the next few weeks.
“We have thought this through,” Muñoz told reporters. “This is not going to add a nickel to the deficit.”
The program would provide states with federal funds in a “cost-sharing” arrangement, Muñoz said. Those funds would be targeted at children from families with incomes of up to twice the federal poverty level, or $47,100 annually for a family of four. Muñoz said the goal is for states to use this federal money for low-income students to work toward a goal of free public preschool for all.
Greg Hudson, who oversees preschool and child-care programs for the state Department of Education, said California does not currently serve all of the children who would qualify for federal support under Obama’s proposal. He said he had no estimate of what it would cost to serve those additional children.
What is known, Hudson said, is that there are waiting lists for public preschool slots in every county in California. What’s more, cuts resulting from the state’s budget crisis have forced preschool programs to reduce enrollments. State-supported preschools lost $61 million in state funding between 2009 and 2012.
In his State of the Union address, President Obama cited Oklahoma as a model state for its free public preschool program open to children of all income levels. Oklahoma enrolled 74 percent of its 4-year-olds in preschool in 2011, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. That same year, only 19 percent of California’s 4-year-old population – nearly 100,000 children – were enrolled in state-funded programs.
To reach Oklahoma’s level could cost well over $1 billion in state and federal dollars in California, an estimate based on the the number of 4-year-olds in the state and the current preschool per-pupil spending. A 2006 universal preschool initiative on the California ballot in 2006 – soundly rejected by voters – was intended to eventually raise $2.6 billion annually to cover the costs of the program.
Nearly one third of California children currently attend private preschools, and their parents pay tuition costs without assistance from the government. It’s impossible to predict how many of those families would sign up for expanded public programs should they become available.
No matter how the final numbers pencil out, preschool advocates say there would be no better investment.
“It’s money well spent,” said Kris Perry, executive director of the First Five Years Fund, a national advocacy organization.
Perry, a former director of the First 5 California commission, said she believed there was enough bipartisan support for early learning for the proposal to stand a chance of making it through a divided Congress focused on the federal deficit.
“Interestingly, there were nine governors who mentioned early learning in their State of the State speeches this month and half of them were Republicans,” Perry said. “Both parties see real benefits, tangible benefits in their states.”
It was no accident that both of the states – Oklahoma and Georgia – President Obama cited in his State of the Union address on Tuesday have Republican governors and Republican-controlled legislatures.
However, Gov. Jerry Brown has been mostly silent on the issue. He did not mention early learning in his State of the State address last month, much to the disappointment of preschool advocates. His proposed 2013-14 budget does not include additional funding for child care or preschool programs.
Though the early learning community in California is still holding its breath for more details on the president’s proposal – and the likely lengthy legislative battles to follow – many are just thrilled it’s being discussed at a national level.
Referring to the unexpected embrace of early education by the president, the California Department of Education’s Hudson said, “I’m optimistic and overjoyed.”