Early education has become the policy flavor of the month. Across the country, politicians on both sides of the aisle are avidly promoting big-ticket expansions of prekindergarten.
Georgia and Oklahoma, two solidly Republican states, are lionized for the scope and quality of their prekindergarten programs. In New York, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who's as budget-conscious as Gov. Jerry Brown, are competing for the title of preschool champion.
The budget that Congress recently adopted, while trimming most social programs, increased the early education budget by $750 million. In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama urged Congress to make high-quality preschool available to every child in the country.
Why is California on the sidelines?
In his State of the State address, Brown urged prudence in spending California's budget surplus. No argument there. But prudence is not just about reducing the state's debt and creating a rainy day fund. It's also about building a stronger economy and creating good jobs. That's where preschool enters the picture. It's the best bet for saving money in the short run and laying the foundation for prosperity.
This assertion might have been controversial eight years ago, when California voters defeated a ballot proposition calling for universal preschool. But as the evidence showing preschool's benefits becomes increasingly impressive, the doubters are in retreat.
The Committee for Economic Development, whose members include more than 100 of the nation's top business leaders, sees early education as a major difference-maker. So do the current and past Federal Reserve chairs, Janet Yellen and Ben Bernanke.
The data support these claims. Children enrolled in large-scale prekindergarten programs in New Jersey, Oklahoma and elsewhere have made substantial, lasting gains in reading and math.
Youngsters who go to preschool, a CED report concludes, are 80 percent more likely to attend college, 23 percent more likely to be employed and are earning 33 percent more than those who didn't have the same opportunity. A recent California study projects that, with universal preschool, there would be 13,000 fewer prisoners - 13,000 more productive lives - saving the state more than $1 billion annually. Such evidence has turned police chiefs and district attorneys into preschool advocates.
Taxpayers don't have to wait a generation to see the benefits of prekindergarten. In California, it's estimated that special education costs would be reduced by $860 million, or 10 percent, because more students would remain in regular classes. Because 15 percent fewer kindergarten-through-third-grade students would be left back, an additional $150 million would be saved.
Can California afford to expand early education? In a word, yes.
Since the state budget bottomed out in 2011, revenues have increased by $13 billion and are projected to rise by an additional $4 billion this year, enabling lawmakers to restore funds cut during the recession. The last two budgets included multibillion-dollar infusions for K-12, higher education and health. The K-12 budget is now at prerecession levels. The prison system received more than half a billion new dollars last year, and the governor proposes spending nearly $200 million more in 2014.
Meanwhile, early education remains the unloved stepchild. While nearly $1 billion has been cut since 2008, only $50 million was restored last year, and the governor's new budget includes no additional funds.
Democratic lawmakers have different priorities. Legislation introduced in the state Senate calls for guaranteeing a year of high-quality preschool for all, by expanding the existing transitional kindergarten, or TK, program, and redirecting existing funds to support at-risk children during the crucial first three years of their lives. That's a frugal approach; when fully implemented, TK would increase the education budget by only 6 percent, and because these funds must be spent on high-quality programs, the investment should make a discernible difference.
Naysayers will insist that this is too-risky business, that we can't depend on additional tax revenue and must pay off the state's debt. But California's budget problem isn't just a matter of spending too much. It's also about spending too much on the wrong things, such as prisons, and not enough on what powers our economy.
While Brown is right to be cautious, the state has to invest in order to build a competitive workforce. In 2020, when it's fully implemented, the expanded early education program would add less than 2 percent to the state's budget. Surely you'd redirect 2 percent of your family's budget to something that's been shown to boost your children's opportunities. Shouldn't the state do the same?
David L. Kirp, professor of public policy at UC Berkeley, is the author of "Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America's Schools."