Credit: Allison Shelley for American Education
A high school student teacher leads preschool students in an art activity.

California families won big in the budget signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom this week — financing a half-million new child care seats and the nation’s boldest spread of preschool since the advent of Head Start nearly six decades ago.

But whether teachers can be found and wages prove sufficient to boost pre-K quality remain in doubt, nagging questions pressed by labor leaders in helping craft the $5.5 billion deal. Ensuring that a new pre-K entitlement works to narrow, rather than reinforce, gaps in children’s early learning offers another daunting challenge.

The budget compromise, fed by the state’s ample treasury, adds a pre-kindergarten year for all 4-year-olds; funds 200,000 fresh child care slots, mostly through portable vouchers to pay caregivers; and modestly raises wages for pre-K teachers and subsidized child-minders.

These bold advances seemed unimaginable in the state Capitol just weeks ago.

Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) had been “moving incrementally” on elements of the package for years. Yet, “the stars began to align” in recent weeks, he told me. “Recognizing the power of pre-K and with declining [K-12] enrollments, labor could see the utility of these transformational investments in early education.”

McCarty’s commitment to early education runs deep, nurtured by a single mother “who struggled raising four kids,” he said. McCarty attended a publicly funded preschool for three years as a young boy. “It saddens me knowing that so many children get nothing before starting kindergarten.”

Newsom’s planning group recently embraced the idea of extending transitional kindergarten to all 4-year-olds, what now becomes universal pre-K. Eager to win union members and reverse falling school enrollment, labor chiefs agreed to enlarge the Proposition 98 set-aside, earmarked by voters for public education, to dramatically extend pre-K to more families. The final piece fell into place when Newsom, pressed by newly unionized home day-care providers, compromised on wage hikes in knotty negotiations that delayed an overall budget deal.

The ambitious package that emerged now becomes the envy of pro-family advocates in Washington, including President Joe Biden, who must haggle this summer with Republican senators to win similar reforms contained in his American Families Plan.

Meanwhile, Democratic leaders and local educators confront formidable hurdles to implement California’s blueprint for 2.4 million families with young children.

Where to find teachers? Extending quality pre-K to all 4-year-olds requires 12,000 newly credentialed teachers in the coming four years and a like number of classroom aides. This equals the count of California-trained teachers who gain their credentials for the entire K-12 system each year. Can universities dramatically ramp up training efforts without sacrificing quality in the rush to staff burgeoning pre-K programs?

Most preschool teachers barely earn a livable wage. Many are women of color. Ways must be found to sustain their employment while earning a teaching credential, the key to winning better-paying pre-K jobs in public schools.

Will educational disparities ease? Policymakers argue that affordable child care allows parents to work outside the home and eases disparities in children’s early growth. “We’ve been trying to tackle [these] stubborn educational achievement gaps, intergenerational poverty,” McCarty told NPR. “The remedy that all experts … point to is early education.”

Indeed, a half-century of research details how quality pre-K elevates the downstream achievement of kids raised in low-income households. But savvy parents and strong teachers often migrate to higher-quality pre-Ks, as my research team found inside New York City’s pre-K entitlement. Politically influential communities also demand richer educational resources and better pre-K facilities, just like in public schools.

A second Berkeley study found that one-third of elementary schools in California do not offer transitional kindergarten, which is becoming the platform for universal pre-K. But these schools are mostly situated in wealthier parts of the state, where pre-K expansion will not necessarily narrow inequities in children’s early growth.

How to prevent the death of nonprofits? The politics of California’s growing child care industry remain contentious. A variety of local agencies — school districts, nonprofit pre-K’s and individual caregivers — compete for young clients, whose parents pay tuition or to whom state subsidies flow. But as K-12 schools draw in more 4-year-olds — the new prekindergarten grade — will preschools run by churches or nonprofits lose too many children to survive?

Teachers in local nonprofits also worry that public school managers will suck all the fun out of pre-K classrooms, under pressure to simply raise test scores. And community programs could lose their best teachers to school-based pre-K’s, better financed and sporting union wages under Sacramento’s budget deal.

So, the hard work now gets underway across California’s rainbow of communities. School boards, teachers, community and labor activists must pull together locally — helping to solve this shifting institutional puzzle — to deliver rich care and learning for young children.

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Bruce Fuller is professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley and the author of When Schools Work (forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press).

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