Dan Walters

January 27, 2014

Dan Walters: Pre-kindergarten expansion shapes up as key budget issue

Democrats in the state Senate have made expansion of pre-kindergarten access for 4year-olds a top priority,but Gov. Jerry Brown is clearly reluctant.

As Gov. Jerry Brown’s new budget was receiving its initial legislative airing last week, Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson asked the governor’s budgetary point person, Keely Bosler, about “transitional kindergarten.”

Giving California’s 4-year-olds universal access to state-supported classes is the declared “No. 1 priority” for Jackson and other Democratic senators – part of a nationwide movement to expand early childhood education.

But the budget contains nothing for it and Bosler reacted negatively to Jackson, reflecting Brown’s evident reluctance to create a new entitlement that could eventually cost a billion dollars or more a year.

It shapes up as a major confrontation. He’ll be running for re-election as a tightwad who wants to pay down debt and create new “rainy day” reserves, while Democratic legislators want to spend a big chunk of the new revenues from an improving economy and a temporary tax increase.

“Fiscal discipline is not the enemy of our democracy but its fundamental predicate,” Brown said in his State of the State address. “To avoid the mistakes of the past we must spend with great prudence and we must establish a solid rainy-day fund, locked into the constitution.”

Local schools are now authorized to offer transitional kindergarten, but only a relative few do so. Senate Bill 837, introduced by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, would make it mandatory.

Advocates contend that getting kids into school earlier, especially kids from poor homes, would improve their chances of educational success and employment later. Eight years ago, they pushed a ballot measure that would have jacked up cigarette taxes to provide universal pre-kindergarten, only to be defeated. Now, they want the state to do it.

California is not the only state debating the issue, nor the only one where it has become a political football. In red states, conservative politicians tend to oppose it, both on its cost and on suspicions that it would undermine parental influence over young children.

Another factor in California and elsewhere is that birthrates have declined and so will school enrollment, and expanding early childhood education would be a way, in essence, of propping up the use of facilities and maintaining jobs for unionized teachers.

The debate has taken an odd twist in New York state, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo is willing to spend $1.5 billion to expand pre-kindergarten but is jousting with New York City’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, who wants to raise taxes on high-income city dwellers to pay for expansion.

The outcome in California is very uncertain.

It goes to the heart of a fundamental philosophical difference between Brown and the Steinberg-led Democrats on fiscal policy, and the outcome depends on whether either side wants it to become a make-or-break issue in the budget.

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