Democrats Scale Back Universal Preschool Plan, Citing Cost
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[May 23, 2014]
By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) -
California Democrats on Thursday dramatically scaled back their proposal
for universal pre-kindergarten under opposition from Governor Jerry
Brown, a Democrat who has charted a moderate fiscal course despite
pressure from many within his party to use a projected surplus to
increase spending on social services.
The $2.5 billion plan to offer free preschool to all 4-year-olds
had been the top legislative effort this year by the state senate's
highest ranking Democrat, Darrell Steinberg, who is leaving office
at the end of the year.
"My aspiration, which has not changed, is universal preschool for
all 4-year-olds regardless of income," Steinberg said in an
interview on Thursday. "But that's a significant cost over the short
Now, Steinberg is proposing free preschool for children whose
families make less than twice the federal poverty level, using funds
that had been earmarked for children of all incomes who turn 5 after
September 1, the state's cutoff for starting kindergarten. The plan
would cost about $1.3 billion.
The revamped proposal, unveiled as negotiations over the state
budget are heating up, comes at a time when a call for what is known
as universal pre-K is gaining traction around the country.
President Barack Obama called for a broad expansion of public
pre-school in his State of the Union speech last year, though the
move stalled in Congress. Bill de Blasio made universal pre-K a
centerpiece of his successful New York mayoral campaign.
"From our perspective, 'low-income' includes about half the kids in
the state," said Ted Lempert, president of Oakland-based Children
Now. "The need is very significant."
A spokesman for Brown said the governor would review the proposal,
but remains concerned that it commits the state to additional
"Our overarching caution and concern is committing the state to
higher ongoing levels of spending," said spokesman H.D. Palmer.
The children served under Steinberg's program are already eligible
for free pre-school, said education advocate Deborah Kong, president
of Early Edge California.
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But the state has not been putting enough money in the programs to
fund classroom spots for all of the needy children, and Steinberg's
new plan would do that.
"We think that this is a huge step forward," Kong said. "Right now
less than half of low-income kids who are eligible get preschool."
The proposal would provide kindergarten preparatory classes for
about 234,000 children, about half the number who would have been
served under the earlier, more ambitious program, Steinberg's office
The proposal and a similar measure in the state assembly have wide
support among Democrats.
Steinberg's plan would start in the 2015-2016 school year. He says
$900 million of the total cost could be taken from a program for
children who turn 5 too late in the year for kindergarten.
Brown is proposing spending $685 million on that program, which is
expected to serve 96,000 children from all income levels in
2014-2015, said Palmer.
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)
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