Gov. Newsom wants universal preschool for low-income children in California to be phased in over three years

Padma Helton, a preschool teacher at Shearer Elementary School in Napa, leads three students in an exercise tracing letters during their 10 minutes of individual Ipad time.

Within days of being sworn in as California’s chief executive, Governor Gavin Newsom is expected to put forward a three-year plan to achieve universal preschool in California for all low-income 4-year-olds, in an attempt to implement a campaign promise pledging a major expansion of early education programs.

What’s more, the ambitious plan will call for full-day preschool, according to a document provided by a source close to the Newsom transition team. In 2014, the Legislature declared that “it is the intent of the state to provide all low-income 4-year-old children from working families with full-day, full-year early education and care.” Each year since then, it has provided funds for additional subsidized full day preschool slots, but most slots are still part-day ones.

According to the Newsom transition team document outlining the plan, the push for universal preschool would be part of “the largest, most comprehensive investment in early learning and child development in California history.” Expanding a range of early education programs would be the central pillar of Newsom’s “California for All” budget for the coming fiscal year, which he is required to submit to the Legislature by Jan. 10.

The document outlines $1.8 billion in spending for a range of early education programs. But it does not specify how the universal preschool program would be funded. Newsom’s preschool plan would be introduced over a three-year period, to ensure that the system can plan for the increase in capacity and facilities that will be needed.

It also calls for investing in long-term planning to address what it calls “workforce and capacity barriers” as well as to “identify funding” to pay for universal preschool, which is generally viewed to mean subsidized slots for low-income 4-year-olds.

The document also calls for implementing universal kindergarten in California — which includes expanding the number of full-day kindergarten programs in the state. Currently 1 in 5 school districts only offer half-day kindergarten, according to the document.

Perhaps significantly, the transition team document does not use the term “universal preschool” but rather calls for “universal pre-kindergarten.” This suggests that the plan would encompass transitional kindergarten, the extra kindergarten grade run by public school districts for children who turn 5 between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2. Children must turn 5 by the Sept. 1 cutoff to enroll in regular kindergarten.

State funding for full-day preschool slots has gone up substantially, from $453 million in 2014-15 to $738 million in 2017-18. That compares with a much more modest increase — from $409 million to $503 million — during the same period for part-day slots.

But as of 2016-17, the last year for which figures are available, by far the largest number of slots were still for part-day preschool. Nearly 62,000 4-years-olds were in half-day programs underwritten by funds through the California State Preschool program, while just over 22,000 were in full-day programs.

Full-day preschool is not exactly what a working parent would regard as a full day. Providers have to offer at least 6.5 hours a day for 250 days a year — at a cost to the state of $11,433 per child. A part-day program must be at least 3 hours a day for 175 days a year, at a cost of $4,956 per child.

According to the document, Newsom will propose this week investing $750 million in funds in next year’s budget for universal kindergarten, with an additional $500 million for child care facilities and what the transition team describes as “workforce development and capacity building among subsidized child care providers.” It also calls for up to $247 million to expand childcare facilities specifically for parents who are students at California’s colleges and universities.

Newsom has also pledged to expand services for children under 3 years old, as well as expanding prenatal services for expectant mothers. In addition to universal preschool and kindergarten, Newsom is also expected to propose spending $100 million for developmental and health screenings and another $100 million for home visiting programs.

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