Senate leader Darrell Steinberg unveiled a modified version of his plan to offer free preschool to California 4-year-olds on Thursday, slashing the cost of the program to the state by more than two-thirds by focusing on children from the poorest families.
Steinberg's earlier plan would have provided preschool to all 4-year-olds regardless of family income and cost the state about $1.5 billion once fully rolled out. But Gov. Jerry Brown showed no interest in expanding state spending that much and left Steinberg's plan out of his budget proposals.
The Sacramento Democrat said his scaled back plan would cost an additional $378 million. It would offer preschool to 4-year-olds whose families qualify for free and reduced lunch -- about 234,000 children, Steinberg said.
"Every low-income child in California would have access to full-day, full-year quality preschool if (at least) one parent works," Steinberg said during a budget subcommittee hearing Thursday.
Children whose parents are poor but don't work would get a half-day of preschool under the plan, Steinberg said.
"Too many kids - especially low-income kids - are starting school far behind. And it's not right," Steinberg said. "This is an opportunity to do something assertive about it."
Brown's Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer pointed to a Standard & Poor's report issued Thursday that praised Brown's May budget proposal and warned the Legislature against spending more than the governor suggested.
"Like any other proposal from the Legislature we will certainly review the details," Palmer said. "That said, our overriding concern and caution is committing the state to higher levels of ongoing spending based upon revenues that are one-time in nature."
Steinberg also advocated for other approaches he said would help the youngest children learn more and make it easier for poor parents to work: changing the state's "transitional kindergarten" program and increasing state subsidies for child care.
Right now, transitional kindergarten is a year of prekindergarten for children who turn 5 between September 1 and December 1 -- those who are too young to meet the cutoff created a few years ago when the Legislature moved up the age for starting kindergarten. Transitional kindergarten is free to children whose birthdays fall in the three-month window, regardless of family income.
Under an idea Steinberg floated Thursday, transitional kindergarten would be available to all 4-year-olds, but on a sliding fee for those whose families earn too much to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
"I've always believed it is right to look at using existing dollars more effectively, and that is largely what we're doing here," Steinberg said.
He also advocated for a proposal Democrats in the Legislature's women's caucus made earlier this week to spend more on child care for children up to age 12. Steinberg called for spending an additional $550 million on child care subsidies to increase the rate the state pays providers and allow more children to attend.
Various pieces of Steinberg's proposals would roll out over the next five years.
PHOTO: A preschool class at Fairsite Elementary School in Galt, photographed on February 4, 2013. The Sacramento Bee/Renee C. Byer