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Another bill proposing to significantly expand state-funded preschool has been introduced in California.

Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, is the author of AB 47, which would expand the state’s full-day preschool program for low-income children so that all eligible children are granted a spot. Currently, the program enrolls about 140,000 3- and 4-year-old students from families who make 70 percent of the California median annual income ($46,896 for a family of 4) or less. The state didn’t provide enough money to offer spots to another 32,000 children who meet the qualifications.

The 2014 budget included a promise to continue increasing state preschool spots over the next three years, McCarty said. “I thought success was most likely by following up on that rather than starting over.”

Pam Jones of Learning in Motion preschool leads children in an exercise that incorporates movement with academics, Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014, in Redding, Calif. (AP Photo/Record Searchlight, Andreas Fuhrmann) Credit: AP Photo/Record Searchlight, Andreas Fuhrmann

After much back and forth last year, the state legislature tabled a proposal to universalize transitional kindergarten, a public school program available to some 4-year-olds regardless of income. Instead of agreeing to that proposal’s $1.46 billion price tag, the legislature and the governor compromised by adding $264 million to the state preschool and child care budget.

McCarty’s proposal would provide the legal framework to extend that compromise by providing additional funding for more state preschool spots. His plan is simpler and, at an ultimate annual cost of about $300 million in additional funding, much cheaper than last year’s plan to expand transitional kindergarten to all students. State preschool is less expensive to run than transitional kindergarten largely because it does not employ certified K-12 teachers.

“I think we should put as much pressure as the governor can bear and ask the governor (to) follow through on his commitment to provide preschool to every poor child in California,” said Bruce Fuller, an education professor at U.C. Berkeley.

“I think we should put as much pressure as the governor can bear and ask the governor (to) follow through on his commitment to provide preschool to every poor child in California,” said Bruce Fuller, an education professor at U.C. Berkeley who has studied early education.

Fuller said it made sense to target services to low-income children, rather than trying to create a truly universal preschool in one legislative blow.

But if the policies outlined in AB 47 were to become a reality, they would leave an oddly shaped hole in public services for 4-year-olds in the state.

One quarter of children are eligible for transitional kindergarten based on their birthday. Children who can’t attend transitional kindergarten but qualify as low-income would be eligible for state preschool were the new bill to pass. And the rest—mostly middle-class 4-year-olds who weren’t born in the right month to qualify for transitional kindergarten—wouldn’t be offered any publicly funded education programs at all.

McCarty acknowledged his bill would leave a gap in services, but said he still thinks this is the most logical next step.

“In an era when you have limited resources you have to start somewhere,” McCarty said. “In a perfect world, I’d prefer to have universal preschool, but it doesn’t seem it’s in the cards right now.”

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a non-profit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about California education.

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Lillian Mongeau directs and contributes to The Hechinger Report’s Western coverage of K-12 and early education topics. She began developing a speciality in early childhood in 2012 and has written and...

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