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Opinion Op-Ed

California should give all kids the pre-K advantage

"Early education is our No. 1 priority." That's the 2014 message from California Democrats. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg introduced the Kindergarten Readiness Act (SB 837) on Jan. 6, and Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez included an aggressive early education agenda in Democrats' budget recommendations in December.

If the lawmakers' efforts succeed, and if Gov. Jerry Brown joins the effort — so far, his budget doesn't earmark the necessary funding — California could claim the lead in the nationwide movement to give children what's needed to thrive during the crucial first five years of their lives.

Viewed in purely political terms, this is a remarkable turn of events. In 2006, California voters decisively defeated Proposition 82, backed by actor-director Rob Reiner, which would have made pre-kindergarten available to all 4-year-olds in the state.

But a lot has changed since then. New research buttresses the argument for educating kids early. And a more thrifty financing strategy makes the idea more politically attractive.

During the 2006 campaign, backers of the ballot measure made their case by relying on iconic, decades-long studies of small-scale preschool programs. That research showed that children who enrolled in gold-standard early education were significantly more likely to graduate from high school, enroll in college, earn more, remain off the welfare rolls and stay out of prison than those who didn't have the same experience.

Having reviewed those studies, Nobel laureate economist James Heckman estimates that every dollar spent on preschool can yield as much as $7 in benefits to society, a rate of return that would make Warren Buffett envious.

Preschool critics countered that the studies were based on boutique experiments that couldn't be duplicated on a large scale. But recent research confirms that programs similar in scope to what's being proposed in California are having a sizable impact. A 2013 National Institute for Early Education Research report on poor New Jersey youngsters who attended well-financed and well-run preschools concludes that, half a dozen years later, these children are outperforming their un-preschooled peers in reading, math and science.

The New Jersey experience confirms that high quality is essential if preschool is going to fulfill its promise, and SB 837 mandates well-trained teachers and small classes. While that's a start, the Department of Education and state school districts, which would fill in the details, would have to be monitored to make sure that the programs offered education with a curriculum based on solid evidence, not glorified baby-sitting.

The proposed law would make half-day preschool, also known as transitional kindergarten, universally available for 4-year-olds. But as any parent will tell you, education doesn't begin at age 4.

Especially for poor youngsters, it's imperative to lay a solid foundation through early education. Recent research by Stanford psychology professor Anne Fernald finds that the language gap between poor and affluent children is already evident at 18 months. There's a six-month gap at age 2, and by the time they enter kindergarten as 5-year-olds, there's a two-year gap.

It's hardly surprising that many of these youngsters flounder in school; they simply aren't prepared. But poverty needn't be destiny. A companion measure to the Kindergarten Readiness bill, which state Sen. Carol Liu plans to introduce in February, would help close this gap with the nation's first evidence-based, comprehensive, birth-through-age-3 program for the most vulnerable children.

Although the worst of the financial crisis is behind us, it's essential that taxpayers' money be invested prudently. One reason the 2006 proposition failed is that it carried a stiff price tag — $2.3 billion annually — which would have been paid for by a 1.7% "soak-the-rich" tax.

This time around, the expansion of transitional kindergarten and the birth-through-3 program would be paid for out of the state budget surplus and by redirecting current funding.

Making kindergarten universally available is estimated to cost $198 million annually, for a total of $990 million by the time the law is fully implemented. That's about what has been cut from the state's early education budget since 2009, is less than half the cost of the Reiner proposal and is less than 1% of the projected 2020 budget, when the surplus is estimated to be nearly $10 billion. As for the birth-through-3 program, it could be paid for with funds for programs that would be replaced once kindergarten was expanded.

If revenue projections hold, the state should be able to afford the entire early education agenda while also building a rainy-day fund and paying off the debt accumulated during the recession.

Nationwide, this may be a tipping-point year for early education. The 2014 federal budget increases Head Start's budget by $612 million; that's enough to restore program cuts and invest in the Obama administration's Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships for infants and toddlers.

In statehouses and cities, after years of making cuts needed to balance budgets, there's an appetite for better childhood options. In his State of the State address this year, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo promoted pre-K for all. This isn't a red state-blue state issue: Georgia was the first state to provide universal preschool and Oklahoma enrolls the nation's highest percentage of 4-year-olds in state-funded pre-kindergarten.

It has been generations since California could call itself a national leader in education. With a high-quality birth-to-5 initiative, the state could reclaim its reputation for excellence and level the playing field for hundreds of thousands of poor children. What a boon to the state and a legacy for Brown, the Legislature and the voters.

David L. Kirp, a professor of public policy at UC Berkeley, is the author, most recently, of "Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System."

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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