Reinvesting in California’s Children: Preschool for All?

High-quality early care and education (ECE) programs are widely considered to be one of the most effective ways to reduce educational achievement gaps, improve life outcomes, and invest in our children. Mounting evidence regarding the benefits of high-quality preschool programs has contributed to the momentum for investing in high-quality programs. At the federal level, President Obama proposed “preschool for all” in his 2013 State of the Union address, elevating the ongoing conversation among policymakers and advocates at all levels of government. At the state level, 22 governors — both Republican and Democrat — cited the importance of ECE in their 2014 State of the State addresses, and a number of these governors included proposals for expanding access to quality ECE programs. In addition, cities as diverse as New York, San Antonio, Denver, San Francisco, and Seattle have either implemented programs or are debating proposals for municipal preschool efforts.

Here in California as well, policymakers and advocates are shining a light on the state’s ECE system. Recent public opinion polling shows that a majority of Californians think that preschool is important to students’ academic success, support expanding preschool to all 4-year-olds, and believe that such an expansion is worth the investment of public dollars. On the legislative front, Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg’s SB 837 would expand the Transitional Kindergarten program (TK) — which currently offers an additional year of kindergarten only for select four-year-olds based on their date of birth – to all four-year-olds in California, essentially creating a universal preschool program. In addition, Senator Carol Liu’s SB 1123 aims to improve the ECE system for children from birth to age 3.

Ensuring that children are “kindergarten-ready” increases their chances for academic success, and it is widely acknowledged that preschool plays an important role in preparing three- and four-year-olds for kindergarten. Currently, a portion of California’s three- and four-year-olds are served through both the existing TK program and the California State Preschool Program (CSPP). Specifically:

  • The TK program was created as part of the state’s Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2010 (SB 1381), which changed the kindergarten-eligibility birth date from December 2 to September 1. As a result, many children who were formerly eligible for kindergarten in the next school year were no longer eligible based on their date of birth. To help prepare these children for school, SB 1381 established an additional year of kindergarten — otherwise known as TK. For the 2014-15 school year, four-year-olds turning 5 during the last four months of the calendar year may enroll in TK — regardless of family income.
  • The CSPP provides full- and part-day preschool for certain three- and four-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families — that is, those with incomes generally below 70 percent of the 2005 state median income, equal to $42,216 for a family of three. In 2011-12, the state served slightly more than 200,000 three- and four-year-olds through the CSPP.

Yet, in California, nearly two in three low-income three- and four-year-olds — a group most at-risk for falling behind in school — are not enrolled in preschool. In fact, only 37.0 percent of low-income three- and four-year-olds are enrolled in preschool, compared to 56.0 percent of higher-income three- and four-year-olds being enrolled in preschool.

As the debate over expanding access to ECE continues, it is important that new investments use public dollars in a manner that is equitable, efficient, and effective. As mentioned earlier, SB 837 expands the existing TK program to all four-year-olds in California. The estimated annual cost of this program expansion is $1.46 billion when fully implemented in the 2019-20 school year. These funds would be added to the Proposition 98 minimum school funding guarantee, thereby securing a minimum level of funding for TK in years to come.

However, opponents argue that expanding TK may not be the best use of the state’s limited resources. The ECE system is operating at diminished levels of funding in the aftermath of the Great Recession, and the state has yet to support low-income working families by reinvesting in subsidized child care or the CSPP — such as by adding back the more than 100,000 lost slots or updating the income eligibility limits. Assuming it may not be feasible to both reinvest in the ECE system and make access to TK universal, policymakers will need to consider whether state dollars would be better spent on the current ECE system or in providing universal access to TK.

Preschool researchers and advocates are divided on the question of whether public programs should be available to all children regardless of income or targeted to low-income children, who could benefit the most from access to a high-quality program. Proponents of a targeted approach claim that such programs are preferable because they direct public dollars to children who are the most at-risk of falling behind in school. With resources directed to low-income children, the available money, teachers, and facilities are not stretched thin in an attempt to serve all children. However, targeted programs may also be seen as an entitlement, which could create stigma and result in a lack of public support. In addition, the quality of targeted programs may not be as high as universal programs because targeted programs often do not serve all eligible children and may often be subject to funding cuts.

On the other hand, universal programs are much more expensive to operate than targeted programs, and many observers claim that a share of the public dollars for universal programs would support children from higher-income families who not only can afford to pay for such services, but are already doing so. Yet, research demonstrates that it isn’t just low-income children who benefit from access to high-quality preschool programs. Moderate-income children benefit as well. In fact, children from families with incomes near the median have been found to also have low preschool participation rates as compared to all income groups. Moreover, mixed-income classrooms have been found to generate better results than classrooms segregated by income, as in the case with targeted programs. As such, some researchers argue that the added cost of providing universal access to preschool may be justified by the long-term savings realized from serving all children — such as from reduced costs of remedial education and corrections spending and increased tax revenue from additional earnings.

As this legislative session moves forward, the debate around universal versus targeted programs is likely to continue. Policymakers have important choices to make on how to best allocate finite public dollars, and these choices aren’t limited to either a targeted or universal preschool program. Policymakers can invest in a comprehensive ECE system that benefits all of California’s children from birth through age 5. One thing is clear: It is time to reinvest in California’s children.

— Kristin Schumacher