Preschool advocates, who have weathered five years of dispiriting state budget cuts, have responded ecstatically to President Barack Obama's initiative for universal preschool for 4-year-olds, a major surge in federal involvement in education.
And with a blueprint already in the works for a statewide preschool plan, California may be well positioned to begin offering preschool to the estimated 125,000 4-year-olds from low-income families who can't afford to enroll.
"A ZIP code should never predetermine the quality of any child's educational opportunities," the president said in last week's State of the Union speech. "The beginning years of a child's life are critical for building the early foundation needed for success later in school and in life."
Unofficial estimates place the initiative's cost at $10 billion, just for the federal portion of the proposed partnership with states. It would spur a major expansion in public education.
"It's put wind in our sails," said Catherine Atkin, president of the advocacy group Preschool California.
Universal preschool is "a concept whose time has come," said Laurie Wishard, executive director of the Child Care Coordinating Council of San Mateo County. The early years are the most effective time to educate and socialize children, research has shown.
"The idea, science and data behind it have been there for 20 years," Wishard said. "The return on investment is just tremendous."
Kindergarten teachers have long had to grapple with the wide range in skills and development among young children, whose natural variation is widened by their experience, or lack of access, to preschool.
The president advocates what studies say makes a difference in kids' lives: high-quality preschool. His proposal involves state standards; qualified, trained teachers paid comparably to K-12 staff; a rigorous curriculum; small class size and child-adult ratios; health and related services and evaluation and review programs.
High-quality preschool has made a difference for Laurie Rico of San Lorenzo. "I never believed in preschools before," said the mother of two children. But she changed her mind after adopting her 3-year-old grandson, Santino, and struggling to raise him.
In eight months at the Kidango-Colonial Acres preschool in Hayward, "he has turned around 90 percent," Rico said. The nonprofit school has helped Santino, who has brain damage, learn his ABCs and songs, and to become less violent.
Obama's proposal will assuredly encounter tough opposition from those calling it an expensive, unneeded expansion of government, and others seeing more federal intrusion and a test regimen for tots. Obama's two-pronged initiative would build on current Head Start programs that reach the youngest children in low-income families. In addition, it would expand state preschools to serve 4-year-olds from families making up to 200 percent of poverty level, and encourage states to attract more children from middle-class families.
In California, about two-thirds of 3- and 4-year-olds attend preschool, according to Preschool California. But the quality of their experiences varies. The group estimates that only one-quarter of children attend a high-quality preschool, one that can markedly improve a child's academic, social and emotional life. The proportion is much smaller for children from low-income families.
Even if California does apply and win a grant over other states, gearing up to meet those expansive goals will be no easy feat.
The cost of developing a new preschool from scratch is more than $20,000 per student, Wishard said. So instead, "we really want to take advantage of existing space." Besides the brick-and-mortar needs, the state would also have to develop a workforce for the schools.
Since 2008, California has cut more than $1 billion in programs for infants, toddlers and preschoolers, who together absorbed 17 percent of the state's budget cuts, even though child development programs make up 2 percent of the state general fund.
Now, in an effort managed by the San Mateo County Office of Education, the state is compiling a comprehensive early learning plan, with a quality rating system and articulating a vision for early-childhood learning in the state. And Santa Clara County is partnering in a federal Race To The Top grant, implementing a signature child-development program.
If Obama's vision is realized, "we're prepared for anything that is offered," said Judy Bugarin, director of state preschool for Santa Clara County Office of Education. She said she often tells her staff that their efforts working with children and families are important. Last week, she said, she could tell them, "Look, the president believes in you and the work you do."
Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.