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California Legislature Passes Big Public Preschool Bill, Doesn't Fund It (Yet)

The California legislature passed what could be landmark preschool legislation last week, when it sent a bill to Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown that would expand the state's preschool program to all of its low-income 4-year-olds.

California's preschool program isn't new. It's been around for 50 years, said state Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, a Democrat and sponsor of the preschool bill. But funding for the program has rarely, if ever, been sufficient to enroll all of the children who qualify to attend it. And there's never been a statute requiring state leaders to at least try to make enough funding available to serve all eligible children, McCarty said. Brown has not yet indicated publicly whether or not he intends to sign this bill.

Were the bipartisan legislation to become law, as many as 81,732 additional 4-year-olds would merit a free or heavily subsidized preschool spot, state education officials said by email. That's how many qualify under the income regulations (families living at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty rate, or $48,500 annually for a family of four, qualify), but who aren't enrolled in either state preschool or transitional kindergarten. (Transitional kindergarten is a public-school-based early-kindergarten program for California children who are 4 years old in September, but will turn 5 by Dec. 1.)

In reality, far fewer children are likely to actually enroll in the expanded program, according to an analysis by the Senate appropriations committee. When the low-income children who are enrolled in the federally funded Head Start program are accounted for, only 35,000 eligible children are left unserved, according to the analysis. Last year, according to a separate Senate analysis of the bill, "the California Department of Education (CDE) received over 32,000 applications for state preschool and could not meet the demand." 

The deadline set for the expansion is June 30, 2018. But here's the hitch: There is no funding tied to the new bill.

"This bill is somewhat aspirational," said McCarty, a Democrat. "The state should provide funding every year for all families to participate, and it's subject to funding in the budget. A lot of services are like that. It's not an entitlement."

The California Department of Education calculates that there would need to be an additional $351 million allocated in order for all of the 81,732 currently unenrolled, but eligible, children to attend a half-day of state preschool at a cost of $4,296 per child per year. An additional $900,000 annually would be required to staff the program at the state level, according to Tina Jung, a spokesperson for the department.

Meanwhile, the Senate appropriations committee offers a different price tag, working on the assumption that children enrolled in Head Start will continue to attend that program and assuming that some new state preschool attendees will enroll for full-day services. "Assuming half of [the 35,000 children] receive full-day, full-year preschool (at a rate of $9,633) and the other half would receive part-day preschool (at a rate of $4,177), costs could be roughly $240 million," the analysis states. 

No matter the final price tag, it's a lot of money that would need to be secured during the next two budget negotiation cycles if the dream of universal preschool for low-income children in California is to become a reality. That might be a long shot, given Brown's historic reluctance to put much of an emphasis on funding the early years. Then again, state preschool funding in California has increased to include about 10,000 new students in each of the previous two budget cycles. 

Even though funding is not guaranteed, McCarty said he's "cautiously optimistic."

"This kind of puts the marker down," he said. "California ought to be doing this. We're very hopeful the governor will sign it."

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