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Declaring it a caucus priority for coming budget talks, Senate Democrats have introduced legislation that would make all four-year-olds eligible for pre-kindergarten classes.

The proposal builds upon a transitional kindergarten program that was part of a 2010 law requiring children to be older when they enroll in kindergarten. That program, though, covers only one-quarter of four-year-olds, about 120,000 children, whose birthdays fall within the last three months of the year.

Tuesday's proposal would phase in all four-year-olds over five years, at an estimated cost of $198 million annually. The total cost for 350,000 pre-kindergarten students would reach almost $1 billion annually by 2019-2020, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said at a news conference at Harkness Elementary School in south Sacramento.

Steinberg acknowledged the expense, but said universal pre-kindergarten was an appropriate way to spend some of California's expected budget surplus because students would benefit greatly.

"I am proud to call this wise spending in California," Steinberg said.

Elk Grove Police Chief Robert Lehner added that students who do well in school are less likely to commit crimes.

Assembly Democrats included universal pre-kindergarten for four-year-olds in a blueprint of budget priorities released last month. Their plan's phase-in is similar to Tuesday's proposal.

The Brown administration has been silent on the subject as the governor's office finalizes its Friday budget proposal. Yet the Democratic governor and his advisers reportedly have studied the issue.

"I have heard from sources close to the governor that he's been developing a growing interest in early-childhood education," said Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, a former state lawmaker who carried the 2010 legislation that created the current transitional kindergarten program.

Deborah Kong, president of Early Edge California, the sponsor of the Senate legislation, declined to detail conversations she has had with administration aides.

Lawmakers have become more interested in the issue because of research showing that pre-kindergarten has a significant impact on lifelong student achievement, she said. Senate Bill 837 would create the most expansive pre-kindergarten program in the country.

"Unfortunately, our research shows that kids who start our behind stay behind," Kong said of pre-kindergarten. "We think this is really critical to ensuring success in life."

Editor's note: This post was updated at 9:20 p.m. Jan. 7 to correct the spelling of Deborah Kong's name.

PHOTO: Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, is joined by other supporters of legislation that would create universal pre-kindergarten in California. The Sacramento Bee/Jim Miller



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