The plan by Senate Democratic leader Darrell Steinberg to offer
pre-kindergarten to California 4-year-olds comes as he and other
Democratic lawmakers try to push Brown to raise spending on social
services, including education, in next year's budget.
"The era of cutting education in California is over," Steinberg told
a news conference at a Sacramento elementary school. "The issue is,
how can we prudently invest?"
He said children who attend high quality preschools do markedly
better throughout their educations, are more likely to attend
college and less likely to commit crimes as adults.
The proposal marks the latest effort by Democratic lawmakers to
stake out progressive political ground at a time when Brown, also a
Democrat, has charted a more centrist path. A similar plan is under
consideration in the state assembly backed by Democratic Speaker
John Perez, a spokesman said.
The timing is deliberate — the governor is expected to release his
proposed budget for California's next fiscal year on Friday. His
fiscal restraint is widely credited with helping the state emerge
from a historic financial crunch and with persuading voters to
approve new taxes.
But some Democrats complain such restraint has led the state to
neglect important social programs despite the party's control of
both houses of the legislature and the governorship.
The bill comes at a time when a call for what is known as universal
pre-K is gaining traction around the country.
President Barack Obama had called for a broad expansion of public
pre-school in his State of the Union speech last year, though the
move stalled in Congress. More recently, New York's new mayor, Bill
de Blasio, made universal pre-K a centerpiece of his campaign and
highlighted it as a priority when he was sworn in last week. De
Blasio has proposed raising taxes on New York's highest earners to
pay for the program, something that would have to be approved by the
CLOSING THE "ACHIEVEMENT GAP"
As outlined by Steinberg in the bill introduced on Tuesday, the plan
would ramp up over five years, gradually expanding an existing
program aimed at children who turn 5 too late in the year to attend
"Higher income families are already making sure their children have
access to high quality pre-kindergarten," said Ted Lempert,
president of the Oakland-based group Children Now and a supporter of
the plan. "It's imperative that all kids have access to that — so
you don't have an achievement gap before kids are even entering
A handful of states offer pre-kindergarten programs to all
4-year-olds, which like California's proposal makes preschool an
option but not an obligation for parents. Many conservatives are
skeptical of such programs, concerned they are expensive and may
unduly increase the influence of big government on families and
"I think it's going to be a huge waste of money and it's going to be
another epic fail," said Republican Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, who is
running for governor with support from the GOP's Tea Party wing.
"But it's a great jobs program for the teachers union."
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Tom Torlakson, California's superintendent of education and a
co-sponsor of Steinberg's bill, said the slow start built into the
plan is deliberate, partly to spread out the cost and make it more
palatable to Brown and other fiscal moderates.
The gradual ramp-up, which would cost $198 million per year over the
five years, would also allow school districts to better prepare for
an onslaught of 4-year-olds, Torlakson said.
STAKING OUT GROUND ON THE BUDGET
Brown, who previously governed California from 1975 to 1983, has
toed a centrist line since taking the helm again in 2011. He has
repeatedly cautioned progressive lawmakers not to overspend now that
the state has its first real surplus in years.
A spokesman for Brown declined to comment on Steinberg's proposal.
Steinberg did not expect Brown to include the measure in his budget
plan this week, but vowed to negotiate hard for it before the final
budget comes up for approval in June.
"January is the opening act," Steinberg said. "We put down our flags
and we lay out our budget priorities for the year."
In recent months, Steinberg has pushed for progressive alternatives
to proposals from Brown on prisons and the budget, acting almost
like a collegial opposition party leader in the heavily Democratic
Both he and Perez, his counterpart in the Assembly, are leaving
office this year due to term limits. Perez, who is running for the
statewide controller's office, last month called on Brown to fund
more social programs in next year's budget.
Brown's proposed budget for 2014-2015, which would go into effect in
July, is expected to reflect massive changes to the way California
funds education. Under a new program pushed by Brown last year,
extra funds are funneled to schools with large populations of
children who are poor or do not speak English.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Leslie Adler)
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