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Bipartisan budget subcommittee rejects governor's early childhood proposals

Samuel Rivera, left, and Daniel Sanchez finish their lunch with orange slices at Options Head Start in Monrovia. On April 12, 2016 the Assembly budget subcommittee on education finance rejected Gov. Jerry Brown's proposal for a childcare block grant. Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Gov. Jerry Brown's proposal to overhaul the state's early learning system by consolidating all of the state's programs into one large block grant was roundly criticized in Sacramento on Tuesday.

Speaking before the Assembly's budget subcommittee on education finance, committee members and prominent advocates spoke out against what they argued is a rushed and confused policy proposal. 

The governor's block grant proposal, which was included as part of his larger budget plan released in January, adds no new early childhood funds but instead consolidates all of the state's current early education options, eliminates the transitional kindergarten (TK) program and creates a voucher system for subsidized childcare. 

Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, chair of the education subcommittee, was adamant that major changes to the early learning system should be debated as policy changes, not in budgetary negotiations.

“This needs to have some comprehensive policy overview, we shouldn’t just tuck it into a budget and let it fly,” O’Donnell said during the hearing.

O'Donnell also criticized the idea to eliminate the state’s newest preschool grade for 4-year-olds, transitional kindergarten, which early education advocates long fought to create. “We just started transitional kindergarten and now it looks like we’re ready to blow it up,” O’Donnell said.

Speakers in the public comment period focused on the successes they said TK has already achieved. Patti Herrera from Early Edge California cited research by the American Institutes of Research that shows gains made by TK students. “We believe that those investments… have been wise investments for the state of California and our children in terms of preparing them for matriculation into the K-12 system," Herrera said.

Kevin Trommer, representing the Compton Unified School District, pleaded with committee members to “please preserve transitional kindergarten,” explaining how much it had helped 4-year-olds in his district. “It goes a long way towards eliminating the achievement gap,” Trommer said.

Erin Gable of First 5 California called on lawmakers to reject the governor’s proposals and asked instead for a “more robust conversation in larger public policy forum over time.”

Khydeeja Alam Javid of the Advancement Project also rejected the proposal and called for any major changes to undergo a “multi year implementation plan.” She also took issue with the lack of funding in the governor’s proposal. “Any policy change to ECE needs to come with additional funding.”

Enrique Ruacho of the Los Angeles Unified School District echoed the funding complaints. He said the governor’s plan had a funding “cap,” which he said “doesn’t allow any room for growth.” Ruacho said LAUSD sees the dollar figure the governor has proposed to fund early learning as “too low.” He too called for more discussion on the block grant idea. “An ideal proposal has reliable funding and allows for these [preschool] programs to grow,” he said.

In addition to the governor’s proposal for a childcare block grant, there is also a proposal to revamp the childcare contracting system by which low-income families receive state subsidized childcare.

Jessica Holmes from the Department of Finance told the committee members that the governor wants the department of education to come up with a plan for a “single voucher focused system.”

This proposal to “voucherize” childcare also came under criticism from many speakers. Virginia Early of the Legislative Analyst’s Office questioned whether quality would be compromised in a voucher system.

“We are concerned that … shifting to an all voucher program could mean a loss of some developmental standard care," Early said. "Because the voucher based childcare does not have to meet certain developmental requirements.”

Jessica Holmes said the governor’s office had heard from 200 respondents in its “stakeholder” outreach. “I’ve been learning that to some folks, voucher is not the best word,” she said. Holmes promised there would be “more clarity” in the governor’s May revised budget.

Holmes emphasized that the governor’s intent is to create “a single system of care, with a single set of quality guidelines and standards, and a single rate system.”