A Senate proposal to expand transitional kindergarten to all 4-year-olds would be more expensive than originally predicted, according to a new analysis.
At full rollout in 2019-20, Senate President pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg’s proposal would cost $1.46 billion in addition to the $901 million already being spent on the current transitional kindergarten program, according to a recent analysis by the California Department of Education. Steinberg, D-Sacramento, had said the expansion would cost an additional $990 million at full rollout when he introduced legislation to create the program in January.
“When I think about what we spend money on in this state, what we spend on education and the amount of surplus dollars we are experiencing, whether (the program expansion) costs $990 million or $1.46 billion, there’s not a better investment we could make,” Steinberg said in an interview with EdSource.
California now spends $3,700 per child per year, or $607 million annually, on a half-day state-funded preschool program for 4-year-olds from low-income families. Not every eligible child is able to attend the program due to insufficient funding.
Steinberg’s Senate Bill 837 would expand early learning opportunities by creating a state-funded half-day pre-kindergarten program for all 4-year-olds. The bill would expand the existing transitional kindergarten program for children who turn 5 in the first three months of the school year and are too young to enroll in kindergarten. The new program would be available to all families, regardless of income, and would be phased in over five years to reach full capacity and full cost in the 2019-20 school year. The first phase would begin in the 2015-16 school year and cost an additional $72.2 million in state funding.
The original cost estimate for the expansion was a “back-of-the-envelope” calculation, Steinberg said. Once the bill had been introduced, Steinberg’s team asked the California Department of Education to make a more detailed analysis.
Even before the new estimate, some members of the Legislature said the projected program cost was too high. Providing transitional kindergarten to all 4-year-olds is a good idea, but isn’t fiscally feasible until the state has built a healthy reserve and created a plan to pay off its long-term debt, said Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Modesto, vice-chair of the Budget Subcommittee on Education.
“It’s easy to get caught up in the opportunity (a program expansion) would bring without thinking of the impact financially,” Olsen said in December when Democratic leaders in the Assembly first floated the idea.
Olsen has since proposed Assembly Bill 2017, which would create a small, privately funded preschool program for low-income children in Ventura County that she said could act as a model for a larger program down the road.
Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, said there is enough money to spend more on care and education for young children in the state, but she’s not sure expanding transitional kindergarten is the best option. Making kindergarten mandatory, increasing funding for the current state-funded preschool program and offering free instructional training to private day care providers are among some of the alternate ideas Skinner said should be considered.
“What I am looking forward to is a really good discussion on all these questions,” Skinner said. “I’ve not yet solidly fallen into what’s the right path right now.”
If the bill passes, education department officials would expect 372,000 4-year-olds, about 70 percent of the eligible population, to enroll in the program by the time it is fully rolled out. The handful of other states –namely Oklahoma, Florida and Vermont – that offer universal preschool programs have enrollment rates just higher than 70 percent, while non-enrolled children either stay home or attend private programs. Each enrolled child will cost the state about $5,500, or two thirds of what a similar K-3 child would cost under the new Local Control Funding Formula for schools, which accounts for income status and home-language status, among other factors.
Once schools receive that money, the majority of it would cover teacher salaries. The bill calls for two adults, one credentialed teacher and one assistant, in each classroom of 20 transitional kindergartners, to be paid on the same pay scale as K-12 teachers. The average salary for a mid-career elementary teacher in a medium school district is $63,903.
By 2019-20, the increased enrollment would raise the funds the state could spend on schools under Proposition 98, which sets a minimum funding level for schools, by $2.2 billion, according to the California Department of Education. The additional funding should be enough to run the expanded transitional kindergarten program without cutting into existing revenues for school districts. However, the new money directed toward schools would come from the state’s general fund, leaving funding for other social welfare programs vulnerable, Steinberg said.
“I’m always concerned about the entire budget,” Steinberg said. “But I know this: (According to) the brain research and the broader research on this subject, if we invest in universal pre-K, we will save money in a lot of other areas down the line.”
Nobel-Prize-winning economist James Heckman found that the return on investment for publicly funded preschool is $7 for every $1 spent. The 600 percent return comes from savings on special education, welfare and prison costs, as well as increased income tax revenue, Heckman found. If that holds true in California, the new pre-kindergarten program would start paying for itself in about 20 years, when the first graduates move into the workforce.
Critics charge that such rosy predictions are overly optimistic. Larger, cheaper public preschool programs have rarely shown as much success as the small, expensive preschool program Heckman studied, critics say. Federal and state governments are already spending too much money on early childhood programs that do too little to help children, said Russ Whitehurst, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, in his testimony to the U.S. House Education and Workforce Committee’s February hearing on early childhood education.
“We know far less than the advocacy community, and many members of the research community, would have you believe about who needs what early childhood services when,” Whitehurst testified.
Gov. Jerry Brown has not yet taken a public stand on the transitional kindergarten expansion proposal. Without Brown’s support, it may be difficult to get any money at all set aside for early learning, let alone the $1.46 billion that will be required to expand transitional kindergarten.
Steinberg said he is confident that the governor and the state legislature will end up agreeing on a way to provide more publicly funded pre-kindergarten options for young children.
“Am I willing to fight for this? Yes,” Steinberg said. “Should it be a fight? No.”