Senate Passes “Fair Start” bill to Renew Pre-Kindergarten in California

May 29, 2014

(Sacramento) – With recent polls showing overwhelming support for universal pre-Kindergarten in California, the State Senate today passed a proposal that would provide high quality pre-Kindergarten opportunities to all of the state’s children born into low income families. Fair Start, or SB 837 authored by California Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D – Sacramento), moves to the State Assembly after the upper house approved the bill on a 26 to 10 vote.

“Not one K-12 reform can address the reality that the achievement gap is formed before children arrive in Kindergarten. At age five, low income children are more than two years behind in language development” Senator Steinberg said. “Children with low reading skills are 60 percent more likely to drop out of school. It is smarter and more prudent to make a Fair Start investment in success up front, than it is to pay the price of failure at the end.”

A 2010 study by Nobel Laureate economist James Heckman shows that every dollar invested in high quality early education generates seven dollars in returns. Those investment returns come in a number of areas, including savings from fewer grade retentions and special education placements, lower crime rates and higher lifetime earnings.

Renewing pre-Kindergarten will redirect the existing Transitional Kindergarten (for only a quarter of the state’s 4 year-olds, eligible by the luck of their birthday) and its projected $900 million annual expense to targeted and voluntary pre-K learning opportunities for all low-income 4 year-olds. At full implementation, the Fair Start proposal offers more than 234,000 low-income 4 year-olds access to high-quality pre-Kindergarten, representing nearly half of all 4 year-olds in California.

Together with a companion measure approved by the Senate Budget Committee last week, 4 year-old children with at least one working parent from low income families will be eligible for full-day pre-Kindergarten and 77,000 are expected to take advantage of that full-day opportunity. The transition would begin to take effect in fall 2015 at a modest additional cost of $378 million.

Providers will have flexibility in meeting new and smaller class-size goals: serving either 24 children per teacher plus two assistants at an adult/child ratio of 1:8, or 20 children per teacher with one assistant at an adult/child ratio of 1:10, while calling for teachers and teaching assistants to have training in early childhood education by the end of the five-year phase-in. Curriculum would be shaped by the California Preschool Learning Foundations, designed for the social, emotional and cognitive needs of 4 year-olds.

The Senate Democratic push for expanded early childhood education comes on the heels of New York’s announcement to provide prekindergarten for all four-year olds, with President Obama’s endorsement. A recent PPIC poll demonstrated solid majorities of California adults (73%), likely voters (63%), and public school parents (80%) calling for the state to offer universal pre-Kindergarten for all 4 year-olds. Consistent with that finding, 88 percent of adults say attending preschool is either somewhat or very important to a student’s success in kindergarten through grade 12.

Senator Steinberg is also backing the goal of the Legislative Women’s Caucus to offer more than 40,000 childcare opportunities for low-income children, largely focused toward 0-3 year olds, starting this year.

Both proposals are contained in the Senate’s Budget Committee Report and will be placed before the Budget Conference Committee next week.