The pros and cons of 4 plans to solve the preschool access crisis in California

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114543 full

California has a preschool access problem: 40 percent of all 4-year-olds in the state are not enrolled in early learning. 

The state's level of preschool enrollment mirror those across the United States, which has some of the lowest rates of preschool enrollment in the world. Market rates for private preschool are comparable to the cost of community college, leaving many families unable to pay for school. Public preschool is available for families whose income is low enough. But even among families that are eligible, an estimated 30-35,000 children still don't have a seat. 

Over the past few years, a consensus has grown among preschool advocates, lawmakers and the general public that the state must solve this access crisis. But there's no agreement over what the best solution is. 

Here are four ideas currently being discussed by policymakers and advocates to expand the number of 4-year-olds in preschool. We take a look at how each proposal would work and what the pros and cons of each might be:

1. Consolidating early learning programs

Last month, California Gov. Jerry Brown introduced a plan to overhaul the state's early learning infrastructure by collapsing all of the various programs that currently receive public funds to serve children into one pot of money. 

Those funds would then be distributed to local education authorities to decide how to meet the local preschool needs.

Possible benefits of the plan:

There is a focus on spending the limited funds on children who qualify based on need. Currently Transitional Kindergarten will accept any student, regardless of income, as long as they turn five between Sept. 1 and Dec. 1. Some argue that when so many low-income children are missing out on preschool, state funds should first be apportioned based on need. The governor's plan aims to do this. 

And the possible problems:

The governor's plan provides only a 3 percent increase in funding overall, which critics say is not enough to provide the amount of seats necessary to meet the number of children statewide who qualify for public preschool based on need.

"We think a more reasonable proposal is that offered by the California Women's Caucus, which proposes $800 million in new early learning investment," said Kim Pattillo Brownson, managing director at the Advancement Project. Details are still forthcoming on this CWC's proposal, and it appears to prioritize childcare for children aged zero to three, an age group who are enrolled at preschool at even lower rates than 4-year-olds. 

Moreover, the governor's proposal would eliminate the Transitional Kindergarten (TK) program that was instituted to accommodate the children who missed out on kindergarten when the age to start was changed to five by September 1. Deborah Kong, president of Early Edge California, a preschool advocacy organization, worries these changes might end up "kicking many 4-year-olds out of the TK-12 system that they have historically had the opportunity to attend."  

2. Use the state's current preschool funds for all needy kids

As part of an evaluation of Brown's child care overhaul plan, the independent Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO) offered up a new idea to enroll all of the state's neediest young children without adding more costs to the state's current childcare programs.

Here's how it would work: Take the $1.7 billion California currently spends on preschool programs and divvy it up to just pay for the neediest kids -- about 270,000 4-year-olds statewide. At a cost of about $7,800 per child, every one of them would be in public preschool.

Why some advocates like this plan:

The plan is just a suggestion, included as one small part of a complex report, so it's light on details. But the takeaway is that every 4-year-old who is currently eligible for public preschool would have access to a full-day preschool education -- eliminating huge existing gaps in access. 

But...

Preschool advocates worry that $7,800 per child might be too low to provide a quality education. Currently the state spends $9,600 on full-day preschool, and about $8,500 on Transitional Kindergarten. TK pays its teachers on par with kindergarten teachers and requires higher education levels. Yet the program that is often lauded as one of the leading preschool programs nationwide is in Oklahoma, and there the cost is just $7,500 per student. 

Additionally, like the governor's plan, the LAO's proposal also eliminates transitional kindergarten.

3. Come up with a new plan next year

Earlier this month, Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) introduced a bill that asks the California Department of Education (CDE) to come up with a plan to “provide all low income kids with access to a quality early childhood education program.” The bill gives the CDE until July 2017 to present its plan.

Why it might work:

By late 2020, every income eligible 4 year-old would have access to at least one year of preschool before entering kindergarten. Some advocates believe time to plan might make for a better solution. 

Why advocates are worried:

The bill doesn't set a budget prescription for the new plan. Instead, it asks the CDE to come up with the price tag to fund the plan it will develop. The bill also lets CDE decide how to define income-eligible children and how many seats it thinks are necessary. If the income eligibility is set too low fewer seats will be needed but there may still be many families who don't qualify who are unable to afford private preschool.

4. Create more learning opportunities for kids outside of school

In the face of growing waitlists for licensed preschools, more programs are now offering help for families to provide basic early education for children who stay home.

For example, a program called Educare in Silicon Valley has a “family resource room” and museum exhibits accessible to any community member. Here small children can play and interact with developmentally appropriate materials, as staff members help parents with services and guide children in play.

Another group, the Children’s Bureau in Los Angeles, provides 126 children with early education through preschool programs. But, said president and CEO Alex Morales, there are 110 families on the waiting list. "Unfortunately, there is not enough money in the system to make quality preschool education … a viable solution to spread.” The Children’s Bureau, he said, works to "multiply the financial investment and add in the volunteer contribution of parents."

How? Children's Bureau staff leads classes for parents twice a week and these parents go out in their community to train others. They now have a cadre of volunteer parents who promote reading to young children in the local community.  “We now have hundreds of parents reading more regularly,” Morales said.   

"We have 24 trained parent volunteers who team together to lead 12 groups for up to five years that are helping another 120 young children and their parents to success," he said.

Benefits to this approach:

Expanding opportunities for kids who aren't currently enrolled in early learning programs acknowledges the reality that there are many children today who are not in preschool and need the basic literacy and numeracy to be better prepared for starting kindergarten.

This approach provides these children with a lower-cost solution that gets them some early education. And it trains family members to focus on the elements of literacy and numeracy that can be provided by parents in lieu of a formal preschool program.

Why advocates don't think it's a long-term solution:

Giving kids more informal learning opportunities is not equivalent to a comprehensive and quality preschool program. The learning gained in a full-day, quality preschool program has been shown to better prepare children for kindergarten. If more money was available, the Children's Bureau would be able to serve all the children on their waitlist. 

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