California Moves One Step Closer To 'Pre-K For All'

(Photo by DIBP IMAGES via Flickr Creative Commons)

Attention parents: The California Assembly unanimously passed a bill aiming to make preschool more accessible on Tuesday.

The Pre-K for All Act of 2019 would expand the state-funded pre-K program to make sure all 4-year-olds and 3-year-olds from low-income families can attend. It would also increase qualifications and pay for teachers, and it would change income eligibility limits so that middle-income families can access the program, too.

"There are too many kids from families that are too rich to qualify for the free [program] but too poor to pay the one to two thousand dollars a month it costs for full-day preschool programs in California," said Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, lead author of the legislation.

This is just one of the ways that policymakers are looking to ramp up early childhood education programs in the state in the hopes of closing achievement gaps, reducing poverty and much more. Next, the Pre-K for All Act heads to the Senate for a vote.

McCarty lucked out and got bill number 123 for this legislation. He likes to say that pre-K for all is as easy as 1-2-3. But he acknowledges that it's a complicated and expensive process.

This is the third time McCarty has proposed legislation like this. Governor Jerry Brown vetoed it in the past, but with Gov. Gavin Newsom's passion for early childhood issues, it's expected to pass this time around.

McCarty is one of four legislators in the state who previously worked in early childhood education.

I spoke with him about the legislation, what he's learned from preschool programs in other
states, and all of the other efforts underway to improve early childhood education in California.

Asm. Kevin McCarty, posing with the "lucky tie" he wears annually for the budget hearing on early childhood education. (Priska Neely/LAist)

The conversation below has been edited for clarity.

How do all of these different things work together — your legislation, the governor's budget, the Blue Ribbon Commission?

Well, I ask myself that question every morning, as well. So I don't always know how they all work together. But we're a very complex state — we have 40 million people, urban areas, rural areas. Some areas are robust in their pre-K program. Some — they're early education deserts, where there's not a lot of opportunity and programs. So we really have to realize that we have this complicated web of programs, but we need them all to take care of access needs in California.

It seems like a really complicated puzzle.

Yeah. When you look at these expansion ideas, you have to look at the totality of the issue, which includes the facilities, the workforce, and just the overall reimbursement rate, because costs have gone up tremendously. Individuals in the workforce, literally, they can make more money working at In-N-Out Burger or Costco.

We realize it's a workforce issue, but it's also an economic development issue for the workforce. And as we know, they're predominantly women, primarily women of color. And so I think California ought to be recognizing that issue, as well. It helps the programs be more stable. You won't have as much turnover — that helps the kids. And also, you can focus on the pay.

How did you become passionate about these issues?

I've worked in education policy for 20 years plus — higher ed policy, mainly. And then, about 10 or so years ago had the opportunity to work in this early education field. I always intuitively thought that pre-K was important. I participated in a pre-K program when I was a kid. I remember it was actually a state-subsidized one, too. My mom was a single mom and got an opportunity to to get a scholarship to send us there.

And so I always believed in it intuitively, but when I saw the research, and really dug into the issues, [I realized] we have this crazy achievement gap for so many kids in California, specifically kids in underrepresented neighborhoods and communities of color.

We as a society had thought for many years, Oh, kids start kindergarten at the starting point in a race and it's all equal. But we realized that kids now are starting kindergarten way behind. And so it's creating a big, big problem in our education system.

You recently did an East Coast tour with state superintendent of public instruction Tony Thurmond looking at preschool programs in other parts of the country. What struck you on that tour?

What struck me the most is that it can be done, that there are other states that realize, hey, this is an important issue that we should be tackling as a government or as a society. New Jersey stepped up and they're a pre-K for all state. The city of Boston, New York and Florida and Oklahoma. And really it struck me that some of those states are Republican states. This is not a partisan issue. But California, we're the leaders on so many issues — environment, on healthcare, immigration, civil rights issues — but on this issue, with early education, we're way behind. So that the trip back east showed me that it's about political leadership, and we need to have our top leaders leaning in on this issue and we [have that with] Governor Newsom, so I'm super excited about that.

But the trip also showed how it can be implemented. You can't snap your fingers and have your state be pre-K for all overnight. So it showed us what needs to be done to implement that. And there are common-sense things like [funding] facilities and classrooms, and then training programs for pre-K teachers. And we brought some of those back, and that's part of our proposal in the legislature. And frankly, some of those pieces are part of the governor's proposal in the budget. So I think they're all moving along nicely.

Do you think that that the political leadership piece is what's been missing in California? Of course, it's a lot bigger than the small East Coast states but why do you think California is behind?

Absolutely. I think that this is an issue that Governor Brown, he accepted it as opposed to embracing it and pushing it. So we were able to make, I would say, slow-and-steady progress, but not get over the hump.

There are some programs aimed at school readiness that may not be accessible for all parents because they conflict with schedules. In the initiatives you're pushing, are you focused on early learning or childcare and accommodating parents? Not that they are mutually exclusive.

There need to be choices for parents. Some parents want a full-day, some parents actually want a part-day situation. Some parents need programs that are at odd hours because they work at night or on weekends. We have to realize that it's not always the same for each parent. But I guess the overarching issue is that it's not one or the other. It's not, "Oh, the magic bullet solution here is pre-K and that's going to take care of it." It's the whole spectrum of brain development. The most important years are between birth and the age of five, when a kid traditionally enters kindergarten. And so part of that are infant and toddler programs to help families go back to work, go to school. And so I'm not saying we need one or the other. We're trying to step up on both ends.

But with preschool, we should ensure that at the minimum, at least all lower-income 3- and 4-year-olds have at least one year of preschool before they enter kindergarten. That's what we owe it to our state to do the most.

Do you get any pushback to the goal of pre-K for all?

I think the pushback is that it costs money. And we have other priorities. We have, you know, a couple million Californians without health coverage. We have a higher education system that turns away too many people who are trying to get a college degree. We have woefully funded public schools that are 41st in the nation. We have a homelessness crisis on our streets across California. So, all those things combined add up to $50 billion. This pre-K push is in competition with all those other issues, but I'm hopeful, because there is such strong leadership at the top from the governor. And again, if you look at the issues that we're trying to tackle in California — education, criminal justice and poverty — pre-K is a solution that impacts all of those. So I think that that's why we have such a great opportunity to make a difference in 2019.

A version of this story also ran on Take Two. Listen here starting at 20:30.