Three little boys crawled around a colorful classroom rug, roaring like dinosaurs as other preschoolers learned the value of a dollar. One hundred pennies felt much heavier in the 4-year-olds' tiny hands than a dollar bill.

A casual observer might assume the kids were just playing, but St. Elizabeth's Day Home in San Jose is no ordinary day care. Those activities and other lessons, such as reading children's books about dragons and singing songs about dogs, are all tools to teach students about the letter D while developing their math and socialization skills.

Making high-quality preschools like this one available to all California 4-year-olds will be one of the most hotly debated issues in Sacramento this spring as lawmakers wrangle over Gov. Jerry Brown's budget blueprint.

In what could turn into a passion play, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg will press for state-funded preschool for all, also known as "universal transitional kindergarten," in one of his final acts as a legislator before term limits force him to retire. But Brown isn't on board yet, saying he's leery of the program's billion-dollar price tag considering the state's nascent financial stability and outstanding debts.

"Steinberg's legacy is on the line," said Larry Gerston, a San Jose State political science professor. "I don't mean to minimize his capabilities -- he's very adept at understanding policy and getting things done -- but this isn't going to fly unless the governor goes along with it."


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Critics say public funding of early-childhood education has been ineffective and point to studies that show some federally funded programs' academic effects fade by the time kids reach third grade. Supporters of universal preschool, however, point to a separate body of research showing that every $1 invested in early learning can yield $7 in savings over time in reduced education and criminal justice costs. The benefit for poor students, they say, is even more dramatic.

"Making this kind of investment would begin to restore California's reputation as the golden state for education," said W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. He said California would "send a signal" to other states and Congress about the importance of early childhood education if it joins Georgia, Oklahoma and West Virginia in offering rigorous classes to all 4-year-olds.

Currently, state-funded preschool programs in California are available only to some students from low-income families and kids who turn 5 during the first three months of the school year. Early learning advocates say many low- and middle-income kids are going without state-funded services, even though these children are the most likely to start kindergarten behind.

Julian Garcia,4, Olivia Toth,4, and Cecilia Cintas,4, enjoy books during free time at St. Elizabeth’s Day Home in San Jose, Calif. on Wednesday, Feb.
Julian Garcia,4, Olivia Toth,4, and Cecilia Cintas,4, enjoy books during free time at St. Elizabeth's Day Home in San Jose, Calif. on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. (Gary Reyes)

Late last year, Assembly Democrats called for expanding transitional kindergarten to all 4-year-olds. And in early January, Steinberg introduced legislation expanding on the idea.

The bill, SB 837, would offer every 4-year-old a seat in a classroom that meets at least twice as many national benchmarks for quality than the preschools the state pays for now.

Enrolling in the classes would be voluntary, just like kindergarten, but parent Samira Sekandar said it would be foolish for parents to turn down the opportunity. The Union City mother's 4-year-old son, Sahel, attends preschool classes at Alvarado Elementary School run by a high-quality provider called Kidango.

Sahel has selective mutism, a complex anxiety disorder in which children who are capable of speech talk only in certain situations or to specific people.

"We tried everything, but he would only speak with his older brother," Sekandar said. "With the help of his teacher, suddenly he was talking, telling us about his favorite things in class -- the blocks and Legos, dancing and story time."

Legislative analysts estimate that the program would cost $198 million during the 2015-2016 fiscal year and as much as $990 million in 2019 and beyond after the program is fully operational.

Some K-12 school administrators, however, fear that the state is low-balling the cost and that they will eventually be forced to pay for the new program out of existing funding.

But Arlando Smith, interim co-superintendent of New Haven Unified, said he doesn't share that concern.

"Universal preschool is absolutely necessary," said Smith, whose district includes schools in Union City and Hayward. "Our kindergarten teachers really see the difference between students who have participated in classes before they arrive on the first day and those who haven't."

Under the proposed bill, teachers would be required to have at least a bachelor's degree and special training in early learning. Class sizes would be capped at 20 -- and two instructors would work with every class. The bill would also mandate high curriculum standards that are age-appropriate, including learning through play -- a big upgrade from some of the classes offered now.

"I don't want this to be just another year of school with more worksheets and tests," Steinberg said. "This is supposed to be a springboard that ensures kids get the right start."

Administrators at St. Elizabeth's Day Home say Steinberg's bill would allow the preschool to expand and offer more classes for 4-year-olds right away because the legislation would let school districts form partnerships with private providers like it.

"My heart breaks for those families in the middle -- the ones making enough to survive but not enough to afford preschool on their own for their children," said St. Elizabeth's director, Dianna Ballesteros. "We want to serve them. We just need a way."

Contact Jessica Calefati at 916-441-2101. Follow her at Twitter.com/calefati. Read the Political Blotter at IBAbuzz.com/politics.

WHAT THE UNIVERSAL PRESCHOOL BILL WOULD DO
Provide all 4-year-olds with high-quality, developmentally appropriate classes regardless of family income
Consolidate existing services for 4-year-olds, including state preschool programs and transitional kindergarten
Cap class size at 20; teacher-student ratio would be no higher than 1 to 10; head teachers would be required to have a bachelor's degree
Phase in the program over five years, starting in 2015-2016; by 2019-2020, the annual cost would be an estimated $990 million