Legislators are paying attention to 4-year-olds

Vanessa Delgado and Ashley Vargas play during recess at Martha Escutia Primary Center, which offers transitional kindergarten.
Vanessa Delgado and Ashley Vargas play during recess at Martha Escutia Primary Center, which offers transitional kindergarten.
Mae Ryan/KPCC

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The 500,000 four-year-olds in California may not be able to vote yet, but lawmakers are thinking about them. Two bills have been introduced in the state legislature in as many weeks aiming to get these kids expanded access to education before kindergarten.

Each has a different strategy for getting more kids high-quality early learning that can have a big impact on school performance and overall life outcomes.

The Senate bill, SB 837, would provide universal preschool to four-year-olds through the recently added year of public education, known as transitional kindergarten (TK). TK is an extra grade before kindergarten that currently serves mostly older four-year-olds who would turn five in the first few months of the year (those born between September 2 and December 2). This bill aims to open it up to everyone, a change which would have a multibillion dollar price tag. 

“Adopting universal preschool is an investment in our future that will pay dividends for years to come," said Sen. Bill Dodd (D-Napa), who introduced the bill, in a statement.

The Assembly bill, AB 1754,  has a more targeted focus on the state preschool program, which serves children from low-income families. Currently there aren’t enough places for all eligible kids. 

"I think, at the minimum, we need to make sure that all low-income four-year-olds have access to preschool," said Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento). "I would support, one day, universal pre-k, but I think this is where we need to start."

These bills were just introduced and there are many more details to be revealed – especially about where the money would come from. Committee hearings are expected in February or March. 

McCarty had a very similar bill up for a vote in the 2015-16 legislative session.

"The governor vetoed it," he said. "I’m gonna try again." 

This is not the first go-round at universal transitional kindergarten, either. In 2014, SB 837 tried and failed to officially add TK as a new grade, open to all four-year-olds throughout California’s public school system.

Advocates think things could be different this time around. McCarty, along with Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and Senate Budget Committee Chair Holly Mitchell, actually worked in the early childhood field. And there’s more research, more public support and more money in the budget. 

"There's a big spotlight on early care and education, primarily because it's supported by research,"  said Kristin Schumacher, policy analyst with the California Budget & Policy Center.

"That message is really resonating and picking up momentum. And there certainly is a healthy surplus this year that could allow for additional investments in early care and education."

Schumacher urges policymakers to also consider the needs of young children of other ages who are also eligible for subsidized programs but not currently enrolled. She points out that funding for subsidized child care and preschool still looms well below the pre-recession rates