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Groups want early ed block grant pulled from this year’s state budget

02.28.2016 | EdSource | Susan Frey

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As the deadline for the May Revision of the state budget approaches, a group of education organizations is asking Gov. Jerry Brown to remove his proposed early education block grant from the budget process.

The organizations – including the California State PTA, the California School Boards Association, CASBO, early education advocates, school districts, preschool providers and unions – say Brown’s current budget proposal to consolidate preschool and transitional kindergarten funding into one $1.6 billion early learning block grant “is a significant policy change that warrants discussion outside the fiscal process.” The organizations made the statement in a letter they emailed to Brown on Feb. 18.

Brown sees his proposal – which would give control of the funding to school districts – as a way to simplify an unnecessarily complex system, use cost savings to free up preschool funding for more low-income children, and expand the concept of local control already implemented in the K-12 school finance system. This year, the state is spending $3.5 billion for 436,185 child care and preschool slots. The governor’s budget calls for the number of slots to increase by almost 19,000 in 2016-17, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

In response to the letter, Deborah Hoffman, deputy press secretary for the governor’s office, said in an email that “we look forward to working with the Legislature and stakeholders to enact a block grant that best serves California’s lowest-income and most at-risk children.

The groups applaud the governor for taking on the challenge of streamlining a complex funding system, but say the proposal is fraught with contentious issues that need more time to be fully addressed. These issues include whether the funding would be vulnerable during a recession, leaving quality and income eligibility up to local districts, and the fate of state-funded preschools run by private providers.

The Department of Finance has been holding a series of meetings with early education advocates to flesh out the rather broadly stated proposal. But the organizations say the remaining public meetings with the Department of Finance – at locations across the state on Feb. 29 and two scheduled in Sacramento in March – don’t allow sufficient time to vet such a significant proposal. The proposal deserves the kind of in-depth, multiple-year discussions that took place in developing the Local Control Funding Fomula and the reconfiguration of adult education, they say.

“We need a much greater, deliberative and deeper process to evaluate a really complex system of care and learning,” said Patti Herrera, a consultant for Early Edge, an advocacy group that signed the letter. “We don’t think we can carefully evaluate and re-examine the proposal in a matter of two months.”

Currently, low-income pre-K children can enroll in federal Head Start preschools, state-supported preschools run by districts or private providers, or transitional kindergarten – all with different funding streams. In addition, the state funds a quality ranking system for preschools that Brown also wants to include in the block grant.

Virginia Castor Early, an analyst with the Legislative Analyst’s Office who supports Brown’s idea of creating one program but takes issue with parts of his proposal, said if the Legislature wants to change the funding system this year “a lot of work has to be done to hash out the remaining details.”

“Any new program will require a multi-year phase-in at the very least,” she said.

However, Early said, if the Legislature decided that it needed more time to work out the details, it could do so during the transition years – a similar approach to the one it took in adopting the LCFF.

“The state could adopt the framework of a new system and work out the details through subsequent legislation and regulations,” she said.

Among the many issues that need to be considered, according to the groups and Early in her analysis of the proposal, are the following:

  • The fate of state-funded preschools and full-day programs run by private organizations if districts are in control of funding.
  • Determining how funding will be allocated – per pupil or based on what districts currently receive – and whether that funding will be safeguarded during recessions.
  • Determining whether state or local officials will oversee quality and set income eligibility requirements.
  • The need for increased funding to ensure all low-income children have preschool opportunities.

“The bottom line is we need a more thoughtful conversation about what this means,” said Giannina Perez, director of early learning and development policy with the Oakland-based advocacy group Children Now, one of the groups that signed the letter. “It’s a huge shift, and there are many unanswered questions.”

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