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May 29, 2014
Viewpoints: California can afford to improve preschool

Headstart.JPG(May 29 - By Bruce Fuller and Antonia Hernández, Special to The Bee)

Upbeat Democrats often promise families a brighter future - better schools and stronger odds for our kids, eager to rise in a fair society. It's music to the ears of young parents, women, and Latinos, the voting blocs that now decide elections across the nation.

But Gov. Jerry Brown - the once-inquisitive futurist - has become preoccupied with paying for the past, replenishing pension funds and accelerating debt repayments.

Legislative leaders rose up in polite revolt last week, emphasizing how Brown's born-again pragmatism leaves little room for investing in California's future.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg crisply defined the two sides, putting forward a $378 million proposal - approved Thursday by the Senate - to ensure that all young children from lower-income homes can find affordable, high-quality preschool. Almost 2 million families statewide will search for preschool by summer's end. Half will come up empty unless Sacramento leaders agree to look forward, rather than gazing into the rearview mirror.

While Gov. Brown rightfully accents that we can't keep charging the cost of pensions or health care on a credit card that exceeds its limit, the Senate's bold preschool push will test whether government can find a path that honors prior obligations, while building firmer infrastructure on which the California's unity and productivity depend.

We know that quality preschool narrows early learning gaps for many youngsters, disparities that hamper youths through high school and into the labor market. A Berkeley-UCLA study revealed that many children from disadvantaged homes fall behind in oral language and cognitive growth before turning 4 years old.

So, how can Brown and the Legislature reach agreement on lifting working families, while living within our means?

Dodge regressive entitlements. Some educators and union leaders prefer to expand the state's fledgling transitional kindergarten program for children barely too young to enter public schools. But such universal programs, while politically seductive, reinforce disparities, as well-off communities build higher-quality programs. Just like regressive farm subsidies, education entitlements become co-opted by the haves, rather than pulling up the have-nots.

Steinberg moved toward Brown's position last week, concurring that quality preschool packs the biggest punch for children from low-income families. At the same time, the senator's pitch for statewide quality standards would elevate preschools in all communities.

Put counties in charge, simplifying family access. Anxious parents scrambling for preschool confront a maze of local programs and convoluted rules for who is eligible, regulated under six different funding streams. It's crazy to think that state bureaucrats can pinpoint where to build a new preschool or regulate quality from afar.

Brown simplified K-12 school funding last summer and awarded budget control to local school boards, while focusing new dollars on low-achieving students. Preschool reform can follow suit, empowering counties to identify areas with scarce preschool slots, then lift the quality of programs run by nonprofits and school districts.

Compromise on spending. Educators should thank Brown for pulling public schools back from the brink, after school aid fell by one-fifth after the nation's financial collapse. The governor would bring per-pupil spending to just 4 percent below the pre-recession level, says the Legislative Analyst's Office. Yet educators worry that this progress could be reversed by the governor's quick replenishing of the teacher pension fund by ratcheting up contributions from local school boards.

The governor could ease this pressure and invest in families, ensuring equal access to quality preschool, by simply slowing his ambitious schedule for repaying past debts, just like taking out a 30-year home mortgage rather than a 20-year note.

Steinberg's preschool plan reflects the governor's frugality, paid for largely by streamlining existing programs and eventually shifting $900 million to kids of poor and blue-collar families in their preschool year. He seeks to create a single, easy-to-access program by simplifying Sacramento's current $2.2 billion investment in child care and preschool - echoing Brown's push to empower local agencies.

When Brown first ran for president in 1976, he attracted the "moonbeam voter," as the late columnist Mike Royko put it.

Preparing for his final campaign this fall, Brown now champions prudence and fiscal restraint. But as young families seek better-lit pathways for their children, an illuminating flash of moonlight could only help.

Bruce Fuller, professor of education at UC Berkeley, is author of "Standardized Childhood." Antonia Hernández is president and CEO of the California Community Foundation in Los Angeles.