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California's preschool spending holds steady in 2009-10, report says

Spending on preschool education in California remained steady last year, but only a fraction of 4-year-olds were enrolled in state-funded programs, and budget cuts threaten to harm efforts to increase access and improve quality, according to a new report.

The National Institute for Early Education Research, in a report to be released Tuesday, ranked states on access to preschool, per-child spending and quality of their programs.

About 17% of 4-year-olds — 92,255 children — were enrolled in state preschool programs in 2009-10, according to the report, ranking California 23rd among the 40 states with funded programs. In per-pupil spending, California ranked 12th, at $5,410 per child.

It fared poorly compared to other states in setting standards for quality, meeting only four of 10 standards, including site visits, child-to-staff ratio, and specialized preschool and teacher training.

Overall, the state spent about $796 million on preschool programs, after consolidating multiple programs and streamlining funding in 2008.

"The preschool program in California is remarkably efficient," said W. Steven Barnett, co-director of the Rutgers University-based institute and author of the report, "But … the state spends far too much money on fixing rather than preventing problems, whether it's school failure, low achievement, high drop out rates or high crime."

And Barnett noted that the state's budget crisis threatens to undermine any chance for improvements. Seeking to fill a $26.6-billion budget gap, Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed legislation that imposes a 15% across-the-board cut in subsidized child care and early learning programs as well as other program changes that take effect July 1.

In addition, Brown signed legislation to shift $1 billion from state and county First 5 programs, which are paid for by tobacco-tax funds. Several local agencies filed a lawsuit to block the shift.

The state cuts could mean the loss of 28,000 preschool slots, said Catherine Atkin, president of the advocacy group Preschool California.

"We've worked hard to lay down tracks to make really wise investments of state public dollars that work to get results for kids, and this would put us back," Atkin said.

Nationally, preschool funding in 2009-10 decreased by about $30 million from the previous year, "turning the recession into a depression for many young children," according to the report.

"Three- and four-year-olds don't vote, don't hire lobbyists and don't have a union," said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, in a telephone briefing. "It's up to us to make this critical investment. We have to get out of this catch-up game in education and give children a fighting chance to enter kindergarten with the ability to learn and read."

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