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Op-Ed: California’s kids need quality preschool. A new master plan can make it happen

A child wears a mask while painting at a preschool in Los Angeles.
A child wears a mask while painting at Voyages Preschool in Los Angeles. The state’s new education master plan sets standards and priorities to make quality prekindergarten accessible throughout the state.
(Los Angeles Times)

In December, a blue-ribbon commission delivered a plan for California education that you may have missed, what with the surge in COVID-19 and a “stolen” presidential election sucking up media oxygen. The proposal deserves a second curtain-raising.

Just as Clark Kerr’s iconic 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education put California in the vanguard of accessible, quality higher education — with wildly productive payoffs for the Golden State — the new Master Plan for Early Learning and Care could revolutionize what early education means and what it can accomplish.

California pioneered publicly funded preschool half a century ago, but it has fallen behind such unlikely innovators as Oklahoma and Georgia. The state’s prekindergartens enroll only a third of 3- and 4-year-olds living in poverty. Fewer than a sixth of eligible infants and toddlers receive subsidized care. We rank 14th in the nation in terms of preschool accessibility (Oklahoma and Georgia rank 4th and 8th, respectively).

The problems aren’t felt just by low-income families. Half of all California families who want to find a preschool come up empty. That includes many middle-class parents who can’t afford private nursery school — the average cost exceeds $12,000 a year — and are ineligible for subsidized child care.

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Imagine if this were the case for California’s 5-year-olds. We would be outraged if hundreds of thousands of kids were out of luck when it came to finding a place in kindergarten.

And even when children do land in a preschool, the quality of the experience is a matter of luck.

Throughout the state, publicly funded early education programs have different standards. A child’s teacher might have a master’s degree or just a high school diploma. Youngsters might find themselves in a class of 25, parroting letters and numbers, or else in a group half that size, engaged in the type of purposeful play that evidence shows can best prepare them for school.

Since Gov. Gavin Newsom took office in 2019, Sacramento has begun to act on improving early childhood education. A proposed $1.7-billion investment, however, had to be drastically scaled back when the budget was pummeled by COVID-19. Now, the state agencies, educators, parents, academics and policy experts who created the Master Plan for Early Learning and Care estimate it will cost $12 billion over 10 years to realize its goals.

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The plan calls for public preschool for all 4-year-olds, as well as 3-year-olds from low-income families. It sets detailed standards for what constitutes quality early education, including small classes staffed by teachers who prove their mettle during in-classroom evaluations. It further strengthens the workforce of preschool teachers with salary hikes and coaching support.

Although the plan is weaker on the details of “comprehensive” programs for infants and toddlers, it calls for bolstering what is available by focusing on the training and salaries of now woefully underpaid day care workers.

Crucially, the plan devotes considerable attention to revamping how the state manages early education. It replaces what is now a hodgepodge of programs, funded by and accountable to uncoordinated agencies, with a coherent structure: Child-care and infants’ and toddlers’ programs will be administered by the Department of Social Services; preschool programs will be managed by the Department of Education. It introduces a data system that, by bringing together information across these departments, would deliver an accurate picture of children’s performance and the quality of the schools they attend. Down the line, the data will contribute to smarter, evidence-driven policies.

The master plan has already had a modest impact. In January, Newsom announced a $450-million boost in the state’s spending on early education and kindergarten expansion, and on preschool teacher education spending. “A down payment on a commitment” to the plan, he said.

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Since then, the Legislative Analyst’s Office has projected a substantial increase in the state’s expected revenues. Young children should be first in line for more funding as the 2021-22 state budget takes final shape in June. An additional boost may also come from the Biden administration, which is proposing to increase federal spending on birth-to-5 programs.

In the meantime, the California Legislature is considering a set of bills that would begin to turn important elements of the master plan into on-the-ground reality. Two in particular show the way. AB 22 would enshrine the plan’s call for universal, high-quality preschool for all 4-year-olds, and 3-year-olds from low-income families. SB 50 would free up money to improve what the state offers to infants and toddlers from low-income families.

In the 1960s, once Kerr’s Master Plan for Higher Education showed the way to maximize opportunities for college-level achievement, the state’s community college, Cal State and UC systems expanded quickly. Those were boom times, however. Fulfilling the vision of the Master Plan for Early Learning and Care may require more patience, especially in the wake of the pandemic’s corrosive effect on education at all levels.

“I’m not naive about the challenges,” Newsom acknowledged when the plan was unveiled. “But now we have a plan!”

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The need for quality preschool is clear, especially for kids from low-income families: As Stanford professor Sean Reardon’s research shows, youngsters living in poverty start kindergarten at least a full year behind their well-off classmates. Many of them never catch up. If the master plan is carried out, California could begin to close that gap and once again take the national lead in early education.

Still, it’s a big “if.” The politicians in Sacramento must be held accountable for making it happen.

David Kirp is an emeritus professor in public policy at UC Berkeley. He served on the Obama and Biden administrations’ transition teams for early childhood education in 2008 and 2020.


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