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State preschools short of space, survey says

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Times Staff Writer

Classroom space in California public preschools is at such a premium that 21% of eligible 4-year-olds would be unable to attend if they all attempted to enroll, according to a statewide study released Thursday.

The survey, released by Advancement Project, a national public policy and civil rights advocacy organization, found that if California public schools were to provide universal preschool, there would not be enough room for 117,000, or 21%, of 4-year-olds. If preschool access were targeted to only areas with low-performing schools, 23,000 children, or 21%, of eligible 4-year-olds would not have classroom seats.

The need for preschool space varied in each county based on the district and neighborhood, but researchers found that Riverside County would have the greatest shortage, leaving 43%, or 13,000, of eligible 4-year-olds without seats. In Los Angeles County, 33,000, or 28%, more seats would be needed.

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The study, based on 2005 data, found that facilities are in especially short supply in areas where there are poor children of color, children whose parents did not graduate from high school and children whose parents do not speak English as their primary language.

The issue is especially important as research shows that early schooling improves students’ academic success in later years.

“Preschool is one of the most promising tools that we have to level the playing field,” said Molly Munger, a co-director of Washington-based Advancement Project. “We just don’t have enough space to reach all the children.”

The study assumed that every 4-year-old statewide would enter preschool. It did not factor in those who would attend private preschools, go to day-care facilities or stay at home with caregivers.

State Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), who supports universal access to preschool, praised the study, saying it sheds light on facility space needs and costs.

“In order for California’s education system to be successful, we have to bring them into the classroom at an earlier age,” Nunez said. “The cost is clearly manageable.”

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The cost for creating the additional 117,000 spaces for universal preschool would be $2.2 billion; creating 23,000 spaces in targeted areas would cost $452 million, the study said.

Nunez said his staff would look into ways to fund the facility space needed to provide universal access to preschool. His staff plans to review Proposition 1D, passed by voters in November, to determine if education bonds could be used. If not, Nunez said his office was prepared to write legislation for funding.

“If we need enabling legislation, rest assured we will move forward to do so,” Nunez said.

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angie.green@latimes.com

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