Since the 1990s, California’s leaders have promised to make preschool universal for every child.
Maybe they’ll actually do it by the time I have grandchildren.
It’s already too late for my own kids. The youngest of my three sons graduated from preschool last week. I celebrated by writing my final preschool check, for monthly tuition of $1,165. With that payment, my total spending on preschool tuition for all three boys surpassed $120,000.
All that tuition has wiped away most of my family’s savings. And yet, my kids are extremely lucky — because they got to go to preschool at all.
Today, only half of California’s 4-year-olds and 21 percent of our 3-year-olds are enrolled in either a public preschool or federally funded Head Start, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. By comparison, 90 percent of 5-year-old Californians attend a public kindergarten.
Preschool Tuition Higher Than UC
Left on their own, California families, especially in the middle class, struggle to find anything affordable (many preschool tuitions are greater than the University of California’s) and full-day (to accommodate their working lives). Most subsidized pre-school programs are targeted at low-income kids, though an estimated 170,000 eligible children can’t go because there simply aren’t enough spots. Only 13 percent of low-income kids are in preschools judged to be of “high quality,” according to the advocacy group Children Now. In a state with high poverty and inequality, that’s unconscionable.
Preschool makes liars of California adults, demonstrating the canyon between progressive rhetoric (“children are the future”) and reactionary reality (“kids don’t vote so who cares?”). Investments in early childhood education are of enormous social value: Kids who get high-quality preschool are less likely to fall behind in school, be victims of crime, or drop out of high school.
Oklahoma Started Universal Preschool in 1998
California has flunked preschool for a generation. Oklahoma adopted universal preschool in 1998, but California didn’t. Voters turned down a ballot initiative for universal preschool in 2006. Even part-way measures get blocked. In 2015, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill guaranteeing one year of part-day preschool to every low-income 4-year-old. This year, instead of making preschool universal, the new state budget throws $16 billion into rainy day reserves.
Yet this costly failure to do the best by young children is barely an issue in an election year in which Californians are debating a tiny gas tax increase.
Actor-musician Jack Black (above) became so frustrated at the school’s absurd child-centeredness (“we never correct the children even when they’re wrong”) that he asked the principal, with full School of Rock exasperation, “Don’t you think kids need a little more structure?”
There has been some preschool progress. Since the Great Recession and $1 billion in cuts to early childhood, California has increased the number of subsidized preschool slots, improved its rating and quality system for tracking preschools, and boosted its transitional kindergarten program. Some local school districts have added programs via local taxes.
But all this falls short of a universal system; instead, early childhood education is provided through a complicated patchwork of nine programs with different settings, standards, hours and fees. The closest thing to universal preschool — transitional kindergarten — is limited to students born between September 2 and December 2. And state spending per child on early childhood education actually declined last year.
California Relies on Unlicensed Providers
This lack of commitment to preschool undermines quality and staffing. It’s hard to get talented people to devote their careers to early childhood, and the training necessary for such careers, given the uncertainty. And California relies far more than most states on unlicensed providers.
Despite all these challenges, I do have hope. That hope is grounded in four Northern California children — the four kids, all under the age of 9, of our likely next governor, Gavin Newsom.
Newsom talks obsessively about early childhood, which is a good sign. Yes, he’s rich and lives in Marin, but the difficulty of readying small children for the world is one thing that even the glitterati have in common with the rest of us. A few years ago, at a tour of a ridiculously expensive and irresponsibly progressive L.A. preschool, one prospective parent, the actor-musician Jack Black, became so frustrated at the school’s absurd child-centeredness (“we never correct the children even when they’re wrong”) that he asked the principal, with full School of Rock exasperation, “Don’t you think kids need a little more structure?”
Newsom Calls For Robst Early Childhood Services
Newsom proposes, in great detail, to create a robust system of public early childhood services that starts in the womb (with greater prenatal care), emphasizes coaching for parents of very young kids, and includes universal preschool. He calls for integrating the early childhood system with K-12 education and even universities.
This could be just the most elaborate of a generation’s worth of unfulfilled promises, but there are reasons to take him seriously: As mayor of San Francisco, he implemented a “Preschool for All” program, funded by a voter-approved tax. And in putting together a statewide ballot initiative that legalized cannabis in 2016, Newsom directed some marijuana money to early childhood.
Of course, Newsom will have to negotiate with child care providers wary of change, as well as education and health interests who see universal preschool as unwelcome competition for public funds. He should build a broader constituency for preschool by making sure that his expansion reaches middle-class families. Middle-class support is why Social Security and Medicare are more popular than targeted programs for the poor.
And he shouldn’t wait. Those early years fly by. In the fall, my youngest will start kindergarten at our local public school.
California’s Half-Day Kindergartens
California guarantees only half-day kindergarten, which means that he’ll be in the classroom for just three hours and 25 minutes a day, 8:10 to 11:35 a.m. Since my wife and I work, we’re very relieved that we can keep him at school for the rest of the day, by enrolling him in a “kindercare” program for the 11:35 a.m. to 3 p.m. stretch, and then an after-school program to cover 3 to 6 p.m.
Those two extra programs will allow us to keep our jobs. They also will cost us $750 a month.
About the Author
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.