The state should require all its preschool and transitional kindergarten providers to offer, at a minimum, part-day programs to all low-income families, with full-day programs available for all low-income families with working parents, the state Legislative Analyst’s Office is advising.
The recommendations, contained in a review of Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed childcare and preschool budget for 2016-17, would cover 270,000 4-year-old children through both part- and full-day publicly funded programs. That would be nearly 50,000 more than the combined number of children now in the California State Preschool Program, which serves low-income and at risk-children, and transitional kindergarten programs, which provide an extra year of public school for 4-year-olds with fall birthdays.
The recommendation inserts the highly regarded Legislative Analyst’s Office, or LAO, into the robust policy conversation about the importance of early education and how the state should support it. It also raises the less charted question of how much additional value full-day preschool adds compared to part-day, and how many hours constitute an effective full day.
At a glance, said Alisha Roe of Oakland, the change sounds welcome.
“I’m a grandmother raising her grandbaby, and I’m working part-time. This is a great facility and with full-time I would love to go back to school. It would give me the opportunity to become more self-sufficient,” Roe said, as she collected her grandson from the Community Child Care Council of Alameda’s Child Development Center.
But early education advocates have not warmed to the LAO recommendation, saying it could be impractical for working parents if it is not year-round, and sidesteps the question of additional funding for early education. Still, policy experts said the recommendation will carry weight.
“People pay attention to (the LAO) because it’s going to be part of the discussion when the governor and the Legislature get together to try and reach consensus,” said Mark Baldassare, president of the nonprofit Public Policy Institute of California. Along with the state Department of Finance, “it’s widely understood that these are among the state’s most influential and expert analysts of the budget,” he said.
Early education administrators said that when it comes to learning activities, there are benefits to full-day programs, though they don’t clearly outweigh part-day programs.
“When you look at the part-day program, they’re missing some components; with the full-day, the teachers definitely can build in some more, but not head and shoulders above,” said Cynthia Young, director of the Long Beach Unified School District Child Development Centers.
The LAO’s recommendation doesn’t differentiate between preschool and transitional kindergarten, defining preschool as anything prior to kindergarten, although it confines its plan to 4-year-olds. It also doesn’t specify whether a full day means the length of a school day or longer, nor whether it would be a full-year program or one aligned to the 180-day school year.
“Local providers would have broad discretion to operate for the number of hours they saw fit,” said Virginia Early, an LAO fiscal and policy analyst who focuses on early education. If the local preschool provider were a school district, for example, it would make sense that the length of the day and year correspond to the 180-day school schedule, she said.
There are 138,400 4-year-olds in the state’s preschool program now, according to the LAO. An additional 83,000 are in transitional kindergarten programs. The latest figures available from the state Department of Education show that in the 2014-15 school year, 39,381 4-year-olds were in full-day preschool.
The LAO’s proposed program, which would be funded through a $1.6 billion block grant that Brown is proposing, includes an illustration of one possible funding arrangement, based on a 180-day schedule in which providers would be paid $7,800 per child.
“I think that families do want and would benefit from having full-day preschool programs, because of parents having to work and have their children in a safe learning environment,” said Marco Chavez, community relations administrator at the San Mateo County Office of Education.
That has disturbed early education advocates because it seemingly departs from the goal spelled out, though not mandated, in the 2014-15 state budget of providing year-long, full-day preschool to all low-income 4-year-olds. That objective came to be called the “preschool promise.”
“That goal was an achievement, and I believe that this (LAO) proposal represents a step backwards from that because it is not addressing the full needs of working families” by covering the length of a work day, said Erin Gabel, deputy director of First 5 California.
Advocates’ hopes were dashed last year when Brown vetoed a bill that would have given the preschool commitment more substance by setting a timetable for the state to fulfill it.
Others say the LAO’s proposal is as problematic as the governor’s childcare and preschool budget proposal, which adds no new early education funding for childcare and preschool programs for children under the age of 5. Instead, it would consolidate into a single $1.6 billion block grant the funding for the state’s preschool, transitional kindergarten and quality rating programs, and lift the requirement that school districts offer transitional kindergarten.
“We don’t want to get in this game of ‘Let’s move things around with the same $1.6 billion,’” said Giannina Perez, senior director of early childhood policy at Children Now. “There’s a lot of moving parts and we want funding to be part of that conversation, too, especially in a year when there are resources available.”
The LAO’s proposal itself, in that it opens the door to preschool programs tied to the length of a school year, Perez said, falls short.
“One hundred and eighty days, for many folks, isn’t going to cut it,” she said.
The LAO says a “reasonable cut off” for family income eligibility for the program would be 185 percent of the federal poverty level – or $44,955 for a family of four. The LAO is recommending that children who are at risk of abuse and neglect, who have disabilities, or are homeless also be eligible.
“Everybody who fits these criteria can access those programs, they don’t go on a waiting list, and they can access it for a full day,” Early said. Non-working families would have access to the full-day programs, but the state wouldn’t pay for them, Early said.
Research has concluded that quality early education programs, including transitional kindergarten, provide significant benefits, especially for low-income children. But fewer studies have looked at the effects of full-day versus part-day preschool. More are being done, though, and most have found that full-day programs offer greater value.
“We found better learning gains for kids,” said Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, a Rutgers University-based organization that focuses on early childhood education. But that improvement depends on several factors, he said. Key among them, he said, is what is done during the extra time students are spending in full-day programs.
“The implications are, if you’re going to tell people to do this you have to provide support so that teachers can effectively change what they do rather than just figure it out on their own,” he said.
Also, Barnett said, there is the question of what children are doing during the time they spend outside preschool. That factor is among those that have led to conclusions that preschool, especially full-day programs, is particularly valuable for low-income children, who generally have fewer structured early learning options.
And full-day programs do attract a number of families who without it would not participate in any preschool at all, Barnett said.
“I think that families do want and would benefit from having full-day preschool programs, because of parents having to work and have their children in a safe learning environment,” said Marco Chavez, community relations administrator at the San Mateo County Office of Education. The county has 926 children in full-day programs and 1,150 in part-day in California State Preschools, he said.
Alejandro Nicolas of Petaluma said having access to full-day care would help his family financially.
“I already work eight hours a day, but then my wife could work. She can’t now because she has to take care of my daughter. It would help us a lot,” he said, after dropping off his daughter at the Willow Creek State Preschool in Santa Rosa on his day off.
The LAO’s proposal leaves questions about preschool curriculum and other quality-related factors aside, but does call for providers to share with the public key information about their programs, such as curriculum and family engagement and child development activities.
Early said the LAO proposal was not a comment on the relative value of full-day versus part-day preschool.
“We made the recommendation primarily because we were concerned that without it, families would not come into the program,” she said.