Gavin Newsom
California Gov. Gavin Newsom / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

On the campaign trail, Gov. Gavin Newsom hailed universal preschool as one of his top priorities, so that every California child would have the skills needed to succeed in kindergarten.

Less than a year into Newsom’s term, a variety of early childhood support programs have been outlined in the state budget. There’s more money for child care, and subsidized slots for preschools have increased, as well as opportunities for teacher training.

Still, universal preschool is a long way off, and it remains uncertain whether the governor can achieve such a lofty goal.

Several legislative efforts to bolster preschool and child care services died this year, with money being the paramount roadblock.

Three measures pushed by Assemblyman Kevin McCarty were intended to tackle the lack of money and preschool availability from several angles.

McCarty had hoped to set aside $500 million to build new preschools – that’s because the state currently doesn’t have enough preschools for everyone to attend, even if it wanted to fund a universal system.

“There is a shortage of new preschools being built, it is very expensive to build a preschool,” said Rick Richardson, who runs an early childhood focused non-profit called Child Development Associates, on our podcast Good Schools for All last month. “Proportionally if you look at how much education funding there is for new facilities it’s completely behind the K-12 system.”

But the $500 million never came to be.

Legislators earmarked the money inside of a $15 billion school construction bond that voters will decide on in March. But at the last minute, the $500 million set aside for preschools was withdrawn.

The state’s youngest learners “once again … are going to get left behind,” complained McCarty on the Assembly floor.

If the bond is approved by voters come spring, preschools will compete with other K-12 schools for a pool of about $9 billion, but now that the set-aside is gone, they could end up with zero.

Another bill introduced by McCarty would have poured $750 million over eight years into subsidized child care. It would have provided higher reimbursement rates for higher-quality care.

But that bill also died. Russell Hartley, McCarty’s communications director, confirmed that money was one of the biggest reasons the bill didn’t gain enough support.

A third bill would have created new subsidized preschool slots for children living in neighborhoods where at least 70 percent of kids receive free or reduced lunch. It would have also raised reimbursement rates for some preschools.

The bill also would have mandated some preschool teachers earn their bachelor’s degree with an emphasis in early childhood education by July 2028. Making sure more highly trained professionals enter early childhood education is a critical step in creating a high-quality pre-school network, advocates say.

As the bill went through the legislative process, the threshold for who could receive subsidized preschool ended up being raised from 70 percent free and reduced lunch to 80 percent. The requirement for bachelor’s degrees also fell away. Lawmakers will keep working on the bill next year.

Hartley said he hopes the Legislature can push through the 70 percent threshold next year.

“Bringing the 80 percent back to 70 percent would be ideal.” Hartley said. “We can’t confirm if it would change, it just isn’t in the discussion at the moment.”

Newsom’s office pointed to roughly $1 billion in increased spending for early child care and preschool. That money will go toward increasing full-day kindergarten across the state, as well as training, facilities and increased subsidized care.

The spending increases will also create 10,000 new pre-school slots. But a universal preschool system would require many more, according to most estimates.

“The governor looks forward to continuing to invest in California’s youth, and working with the Legislature on this priority issue,” said Vicky Waters, a spokeswoman for Newsom.

Deborah Stipek, a professor at Stanford University who researches child development and early childhood, said the governor’s office is headed in the right direction, but that there is plenty of work to be done.

“We can increase the number of slots that the state is willing to pay for but we won’t have kids in those slots if the programs can’t fund staff to go with them.” Stipek said. “There are already state preschool slots that aren’t filled because families need full-time care … unless programs can offer that, it won’t work for certain families.”

During a floor vote on the statewide school construction bond, Sen. Mark Stone questioned whether Newsom will really stand behind his promises to deliver a robust early child care and preschool network.

“The governor has given us nothing more than a shadow of a commitment,” he said.

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