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Now that Gov. Jerry Brown has introduced his revised budget plan, a month-long negotiation over the state’s priorities has begun. Unfortunately, the governor’s spending blueprint is still missing a key investment in preschool-age children, even though California continues to sorely lag in preschool enrollment.
According to a recent report by the National Institute for Early Education Research, preschool enrollment in California dropped by almost 15,000 spots in 2012-2013, dragging down the national average down, despite most states making improvements in enrollment.
Buoyed by an even stronger fiscal outlook from the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO), California now has an enormous opportunity to make a smart and reasonable investments in its youngest children by providing funding that would make quality preschool opportunities open to all California families. Political leaders in the Golden State should take note of what’s happening around the country, and assume a strong leadership role by investing in the state’s youngest and most important citizens.
Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg has made new funding for preschool programs a top priority, and Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins is on board. But the governor has yet to commit to providing state funds for a program that will have a dramatic and positive impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands of California children and families.
After years of deficits in Sacramento, the state’s finances have finally stabilized. California now has the means, and most importantly the responsibility, to make wise investments in our future. No other investment could have more benefit than investing in high-quality preschool programs for four-year-olds before they enter kindergarten.
Our governor has been a strong advocate for making policy changes based on sound science and research, as we have seen through his strong advocacy on the issue of climate change. Now, Brown has an opportunity to do the same with early childhood education and preschool. Just as science clearly shows that climate change is real, the data is equally clear that children who go to preschool perform better throughout their academic careers and on into their adult lives.
Last week, Steinberg scaled down his original proposal, slashing the original price tag by more than two-thirds. Steinberg’s plan would cost $378 million – less than 0.5 percent of the state’s overall budget – to make preschool available to four-year-olds from low income families. An estimated 234,000 children would benefit from the program, according to Steinberg’s office.
The investment is modest, and it is an expenditure the public strongly supports. Solid majorities of California adults (73%), likely voters (63%), and public school parents (80%) say the state should provide voluntary preschool for all four-year-olds, according to a recent survey by the Public Policy Institute of California.
Put simply, now is the time to incorporate this scientific knowledge into smart policy, and to respond to the public’s will, and most importantly, do what’s best for all of California’s children and families.
Currently, high-quality preschool programs in California are too often out of reach. Only half of all low-income young children have access to preschool of any kind. This system only adds to the growing trend of inequality in our society – a split that increasingly breaks along ethnic and racial lines. Increased state investment will help level the playing field for hundreds of thousands of young children and their families living in or near poverty – a number that has swelled over the last several years in our state.
Increased investments are required to ensure that all our children have access to early education, and we know that a quality setting makes all the difference to a child’s long-term outcomes. A setting with low teacher-to-child ratios and highly-trained teachers is what makes the difference to a child’s long-term outcomes. Investing in quality is what will allow California children to compete with their peers from states that have made these smart investments.
Earlier this year, politicians in New York overcame their political disagreements to provide a $300 million down payment on the youngest and most vulnerable New Yorkers. California’s political leadership should follow suit, do right by our children, and make a wise and prudent investment in high-quality early-childhood education. The big winners will be all of us.
Jim Steyer is CEO of Common Sense Media and co-founder of Next Generation.
An earlier version of this piece originally ran in the Orange County Register.
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