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California budget agreement is biggest expansion to early education in a decade

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Some of California's tiniest residents look likely to be big winners in next year's state budget. Lawmakers worked late into Wednesday night to hash out line items that included funding for about 13,000 new slots in subsidized preschools and day care programs.

Early education advocates were thrilled at the $264 million in new spending for early education

“It’s the biggest investment in at least a decade,” said Deborah Kong, president of Early Edge California. “We were especially heartened by the bipartisan support."

Still, she was hoping for more. She's been one of the principal advocates for universal preschool in California. State Senate pro Tem Darrell Steinberg introduced a bill this legislative session to expand the state's Transitional Kindergarten program to all 4-year-olds, but it withered on the vine.

“It is smarter and more prudent to make this investment in success up front, rather than paying for the costs of failure at the end,” Steinberg said in a written statement.

Last year the state increased early childhood programs by $50 million increase. This year's proposed funding bump is about four times that size. But it still only brings back a quarter of cuts to early childhood program since 2008, when the budget was about $3.2 billion. The spending on early childhood programs by the state will be about $2.47 billion if this budget passes. 

Los Angeles County alone lost about 11,000 toddler and preschool slots during the recession, according to an investigation by the Los Angeles Children’s Data Network. Kim Patillo Brownson, Director of Educational Equity at the Advancement Project, is thrilled some of those seats might finally come back.  

"Part of what is very exciting about this budget proposal is that they become full day, full year programs, which are particularly necessary for working families who are often working 10- to 12-hour days," she said.

The full state Legislature will vote on the budget agreement Sunday. It will then head to the governor for his approval by July 1.

The budget plan also increases the reimbursement rate for home-based childcare providers who serve low-income children. The rates, based on regional surveys, has been stagnant since 2005. 

Mark Friedman, co-chair of Raising California Together, a coalition of early childhood advocacy groups, said low reimbursement rates made it hard for providers to cover costs.

"In many cases, they are earning minimum wage or just slightly above," he said. "This is a hopeful sign that the legislature finally understands how much it costs to provide childcare."

Specifically in regards to early childhood, the budget agreement calls for:

  • Spending $70 million for 11,500 new, full-day and full-year preschool slots for low-income 4-year-olds from low-income families in the coming fiscal year.
  • Creating annual grants worth $50 million for "quality improvements" to state-funded preschool programs.
  • Spending $69 million to increase reimbursement rates for all early learning and childcare programs in the coming fiscal year.
  • Creating 31,500 new slots for low-income 4-year-olds in future years.
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