Teacher Kiersten Nakaishi works with student Brayden Cuong Le on an art project during a preschool class at Land School in Westminster, Calif.

Early childhood education advocates and providers head to budget hearings in Sacramento this week with a big “ask”: $800 million for preschool and other early learning programs. That would put early education spending somewhat higher than it was before the 2007-08 economic collapse, though still with about 75,000 fewer preschool and child care slots than in 2008.

Early education supporters want more money for child care and preschool services; 10,000 more slots in the California State Preschool Program for low-income children; and more quality control funding. They also want income limits for eligibility for state preschool and child care programs to be raised, which would increase the number of children with access to services.

“Some of it is recalling the preschool promise – to actually make good on that promise and make sure it is delivered on, given that it is another healthy economic year,” said Kim Pattillo Brownson, managing director of policy and advocacy at the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization. She was referring to the goal spelled out, though not mandated, in the 2014-15 state budget of providing year-round, full-day preschool to all low-income 4-year-olds. That objective came to be called the “preschool promise.”

The Advancement Project will be among groups making their case Tuesday and Thursday at the influential Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Education Finance and the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Subcommittee on Education. Last year, lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown delivered $300 million, which included 9,500 preschool slots, for early education.

“I think we’re going to get a lot further this year, as long as our goal is to stay unified as long as possible. That keeps the bar high as far as the ask we can get, instead of getting whittled down.” –Kate Miller, senior associate for early childhood policy, Children Now

“In order to strengthen the deteriorating foundation of our state’s early learning system for today and tomorrow, we highly encourage you to prioritize significant investments in … affordability, access, quality and infrastructure,” 17 early education and child advocacy groups said in an April 4 letter to key legislators.

Between 2008 and 2013, California cut early education funding by $984 million and eliminated 110,000 child care and preschool slots, according to a March report by the American Institutes of Research that said 170,000 3- and 4-year-olds eligible for preschool are not enrolled because not enough spaces are available.

The advocates’ letter endorses a similar $800 million request for early childhood education by the Legislative Women’s Caucus. That request – $200 million more than the caucus asked for last year – was delivered to Brown in February.

Brown has not sent encouraging signals on early education; his January budget proposal included no new money for child care or preschool programs. Without singling out early education, he has called for fiscal caution in general, saying the state must position itself for an inevitable economic slowdown. But advocates are confident in their joint approach, said Kate Miller, senior associate for early childhood policy at Children Now, a child advocacy group.

“I think we’re going to get a lot further this year, as long as our goal is to stay unified as long as possible,” she said. “That keeps the bar high as far as the ask we can get, instead of getting whittled down.”

Political observers say this year the stage in Sacramento is set better for the advocates.

“I think the Legislature will not settle for a proposal (by the governor) that’s anything short of a new investment of money, and we’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Kevin Gordon, president of Capitol Advisors Group, a prominent lobbying firm representing school districts and county offices of education.

“This is going to be perhaps the most important issue to him (Assemblyman Kevin McCarty), and he wants to see something meaningful; he doesn’t want to see window dressing. It sets the stage for a budget showdown.” –Kevin Gordon, president, Capitol Advisors

He said the governor’s proposal to combine spending on preschool, transitional kindergarten and quality ratings programs into a single $1.6 billion block grant galvanized both advocates and legislators who support early childhood education programs because it essentially capped spending on those programs.

Those legislators include Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee’s Education Finance Subcommittee, which helps determine how much money will go to public education, including child care and preschool.

“This is going to be perhaps the most important issue to him (McCarty), and he wants to see something meaningful; he doesn’t want to see window dressing,” said Gordon. “It sets the stage for a budget showdown.”

On another front, the Right Start Commission, an array of prominent business and former elected officials, including former U.S. Rep. George Miller and Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, plans to release on Wednesday a report that it said will detail gaps in California’s early childhood services. The report will outline recommendations to improve delivery of early learning programs and services for children ages 0-5. A commission spokesman declined to provide more details ahead of the report’s release, the timing of which is a tactical decision.

“I absolutely think and hope that this report will help spur on some action to increase the funding that’s going to be allocated for early child in this budget,” said Craig Cheslog, vice president for California policy and co-director of Common Sense Kids Action, the advocacy arm of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit education group that launched the commission.

Advocates hope to have laid the groundwork for success with a message they have hit hard in recent years: that research shows quality early education is tied to better long-term educational outcomes, reduces remedial spending and creates better economic prospects in adulthood, especially for low-income and otherwise disadvantaged children.

“A lot of organizations, ours included, have put in a lot of shoe leather to make sure the emerging science of why the 0-to-5 window is so important” to educational success is brought to the attention of the public and legislators, said the Advancement Project’s Pattillo Brownson. “I think the science as well as the economics have reached a lot of the legislators, and as facts, not as arguments.”

Still, despite what seems a promising landscape for advocates, there is a risk that differing priorities could emerge in Sacramento – for example, the needs of 0- to 3-year-old children versus preschoolers – precisely because the early education system is underfunded, said David Rattray, executive vice president of education and workforce development at the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, which signed the advocates’ letter.

“I think one challenge is we are under-investing and not being as state-of-the-art efficient as we can be across each level” of early education, he said. “So a challenge is we know we need to do better in each of these areas, and what could happen is we end up fighting amongst ourselves.”

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