California to receive largest share of proposed Universal Preschool funds

by Deepa Fernandes , KPCC

California is expected to receive the most federal funding of any state in the country under President Obama’s "Preschool For All" proposal. The state will receive $334 million for the first year to pay for the universal preschool program. The money will cover 90 percent of the state’s first year costs. California would have to chip in 10 percent in the first year, about $34 million.

California gets more money for universal preschool than any other state because it has more pre-school kids living in poverty.

The Department of Education estimates California could serve 40,000 low and moderate income pre-schoolers in the first year of the program. Kris Perry, Executive Director of the early education advocacy group First Five Years Fund, said the funding will be critical for California’s low-income families.

Perry called the funding announcement ‘good news’ and said it recognizes that in large states like California: "(there is) a huge unmet need around early learning programs for kids living under the poverty limit.’

The president’s proposal ‘allows for more kids to be served," Perry said. Currently, more than half of all children entering kindergarten, Perry points out, have not attended a high quality preschool.

President Obama first mentioned the idea of a universal preschool program and expanded early childhood focus in his State of the Union address earlier this year. The price tag for the universal preschool portion of the plan is $75 billion over 10 years.

The president promises that his plan will not add a cent to the federal deficit. He calls it a good investment.

‘If you’re looking for a good bang for your educational buck, this is it,’ Obama said in a speech earlier this year.

James Heckman, a Nobel prize winning economist from the University of Chicago, agrees. His research shows that taxpayers get a return of 7 cents on the dollar for each year of investment in early education.

The president’s early childhood focus also includes money for infants and toddlers. There will be a competitive grant pool of $1.4 billion for high quality childcare through the Early Head Start program. California currently has about 40,000 infants and toddlers served through Early Head Start block grants.

The final part of the president’s early childhood initiative would expand the voluntary home visitation program by nurses and social workers to the homes of low-income, new mothers. Each year about 140,000 low-income mothers give birth in California. The federal government would spend $15 billion over 10 years to encourage states to expand home visitation programs. California’s share of that money for the first year is about $21 million.

But the early education initiatives won’t happen if Congress doesn’t approve the funding for it. Still a long road ahead before any child will be attending a new, free preschool.