California’s subsidized preschool program can be extended to preschoolers

Credit: Allison Shelley for American Education

California’s subsidized preschool program may be open to children as young as age 2 if the expansion of services in Gov. Gavin Newsom is realized.

The California State Preschool Program currently serves low-income state 3- and 4-year-olds. The new proposal to expand the program to children as young as 2 is part of the K-12 “Trailer Act,” clarifying policies related to the state’s budget for 2022-23. Typically, the governor revises the proposed budget in May and must be approved by the legislature in June.

Right now, California, which has nearly 3 million children under the age of 5, lags behind other states in access to early childhood education, with only 37% enrolled in the state’s transitional preschool and state subsidized preschool program, according to the National Institute for Education. Early Education Research, a research organization at Rutgers. That’s why child advocates see this proposal as a big step forward.

“It’s exciting to think that we could systematically expand access to quality childcare for more of our toddlers,” said Gina Fromer, CEO of Children’s Council of San Francisco, an aid and referral agency. “By increasing our range of preschool options, our state’s working families — particularly in our communities of color — can face the challenges of pandemic unemployment, health crises, and more.”

Preschool and childcare are major expenses for most families. According to a report from Child Care Aware of America, the average annual price of childcare in 2020 was about $10,174 nationally, up 5% from 2019.

Cost is a major reason why this state kindergarten expansion would be a game-changer for working families struggling to make it into an expensive state. About 6 out of 10 California children under 12 live in a family where all parents work, according to the California Budget and Policy Center. Though the need is dire, 60 percent live in a childcare desert with limited access to caregivers.

“California’s infants and toddlers have long been the last on the list of children served by our public systems,” said Fromer, “despite what science tells us to do to support children’s development during the critical early years of life.”

Coupled with the expansion of the transitional preschool, or TK, to all 4-year-olds, this greater accessibility to preschool represents real progress toward reaching disadvantaged children, experts say. Currently, the preschool program is for 3 and 4 year olds while TK is mainly those who turn 5 between September 2nd and December 2nd.

“It’s a really big problem,” said Scott Moore, head of Kidango, a nonprofit that runs many daycare centers in the Bay Area. If this latest proposal is passed by the legislature, proponents say, the 2-year-olds who come to state kindergarten could fill the seats freed by the 4-year-olds who go to TK, thus maintaining balance in the system.

“It’s making sure kids who need it most get the most, and it’s driving a major expansion of quality infant preschool care, which is both what parents have the most trouble finding…and what’s most effective in terms of long-term child and family outcomes,” Moore said. “So while all 4-year-olds are winning, so are our youngest low-income kids and their families.”

The main ambition of the state-funded kindergarten is to promote the learning and development of young children to improve their academic performance. Preschool can achieve this goal, research suggests, but only through stable and high-quality programs. If quality is inconsistent, experts say, educational performance suffers. For example, the quality of Tennessee’s program often fluctuated, experts say, which may have led to the widely reported negative impact on children.

“Studies of universal programs sometimes find negative effects that last for many years, when the quality is low,” said W. Steven Barnett, senior co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research. “The most obvious way in which a universal program can have negative effects is when parents of children who would have had high-quality experiences at home or in non-parental care switch their children to a free universal program that is of lower quality. because it’s bad. funded.”

However, if quality is guaranteed, early childhood advocates see more early childhood education as critical to closing the achievement gap, the gap in academic achievement between low-income students and their higher-income peers.

“I’m excited to see some concrete steps toward improving inclusion in early childhood,” said Shantel Meek, founder and director of the Children’s Equity Project, an advocacy/research organization at Arizona State University. “It would address a great need and invest in one of the most underinvested parts of the already chronically underfunded early care and education system. It is the most expensive and least accessible part of the system, and parents have a very hard time finding quality care.”

A key to success is ensuring that preschoolers receive high-quality education and care appropriate to their age group.

“Developmental fitness must come first,” said Meek, who was a senior policy advisor for early childhood development in the Obama administration. “This can’t be to push kindergarten to toddlers. It should be about play and discovery, family partnership, rich interactions, home language and social development, smaller proportions and group sizes than in 3, 4 and 5 year olds.”

One size doesn’t fit everyone when it comes to programs for young children, experts say. You can’t just offer the same curriculum or staffing to a 2-year-old as you would to a 4-year-old. For example, many toddlers need help using the bathroom.

“It will be essential in the coming months to evaluate the proposal in the context of the California State Preschool Program for Providers,” said Patricia Lozano, executive director of Early Edge, an early education advocacy organization, “which, in turn, represents the it possible for them to serve more families with children under the age of 5 in California.”

The state’s proposed expansion of the subsidized preschool system comes even as President Joe Biden’s ambitious plan for universal preschool and affordable childcare, a key part of his domestic policy agenda, has stalled in Congress under fire from conservatives.

Universal kindergarten has long been a progressive goal. Then-President Barack Obama was particularly in favor of it in 2013, but was unable to muster the Republican support. The Biden plan is designed to make free preschool available to all 3- and 4-year-olds, especially low-income children. The proposal would establish a federal-state partnership that provides funds to expand public preschool programs to an estimated 6 million children.

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