New budget proposal for preschool doesn't include new funds

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As part of his budget plan released Thursday, Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing a $1.6 billion Early Learning Block Grant. That may seem like the state's youngest learners just hit the jackpot, but the proposal doesn't actually add any new funds for early education.

The proposed early learning block grant takes existing pots of money that are currently spent on childcare and preschool and combines them into one new fund. There is no funding allocated for new preschool seats, something that advocates push for each budget cycle. 

During the recession the state cut early education by over $1 billion, which amounted to almost 100,000 lost preschool seats. In recent budget years some of those cuts have been restored, but spending on early care is nowhere near 2008 levels when the budget was about $3.2 billion.

The governor's block grant proposal won't bring funding any closer to that level, but instead aims to cut out much of the confusion and administrative red-tape that runs through the early care system by bringing the various programs into one delivery system.

Currently there are a number of programs statewide that fund infant-toddler care or preschool for low-income children, and most have different compliance rules and administrative hurdles. The governor’s plan could cut these processes and may even save money, said Barrett Snider, a partner at Capitol Advisors Group, which closely watches education policy and legislation in Sacramento.

"Often [childcare funding] programs have different compliance rules so by putting them all in one program you can remove duplicative processes and burdens that may generate savings that can be used for programming," Snider said.

Preschool advocates had mixed reactions to the governor's proposal. Deborah Kong, president of Early Edge California, said she was "glad to see the governor talking about early learning," but added that the state's budget surplus "should translate into more funding to our earliest learners."

The Raising California Together coalition, a large group of childcare providers, advocates, academics, clergy and unions, had harsher words for the governor.

"Today’s budget proposal continues to send the wrong message to bright young minds who will shape our future," said the group's co-chair, Tonia McMillian, in a statement. 

"Rather than aiming high to fight poverty and close the achievement gap, this budget provides no new access to quality child care for needy children," McMillian said.  "It offers no path for thousands of dedicated, inspiring, early educators to lift their families out of poverty and denies access to millions of parents who need early education and care to go to work."

The budget plan does include a focus on low-income children, said Bruce Fuller, professor of education and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. "The language about moving dollars to low-income families is important," Fuller said.

He pointed out that two years ago, when the senate leader was trying to get more money to low-income families for preschool, the governor was not supportive. "So the fact that [Governor Brown] is now saying we should focus this block grant on low-income families is big," Fuller said.

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