Why would California leave $100 million on the table for early education?

10.05.2011 | Thoughts on Public Education | David Kirp

With the Oct. 19 deadline for applying for the preschool version of Race to the Top rapidly approaching, California officials have yet to announce whether they will apply for a $100 million early learning federal grant for which the state is eligible. Why the hesitation? This should be a no-brainer.

This year alone, more than 35,000 preschoolers were dropped from the subsidized early education rolls because of budget constraints. With California confronting major cuts to initiatives designed to ensure that all children enter school ready to learn, why on earth would the state leave Washington’s money, aimed at underwriting early education, on the table?

Decades of research underscore the critical importance of high-quality early education in closing the achievement gap for low-income youngsters. California’s lawmakers recognize this fact. The state has been moving toward a system of top-caliber programs – precisely the kinds of initiatives that have been shown to generate better outcomes for children.

The new transitional kindergarten program, signed into law last year despite our fiscal woes, is the first such statewide venture in the country. This initiative provides a two-year kindergarten experience for the youngest 130,000 four-year-olds in public school. It’s the perfect opportunity to connect high-quality early learning with K-12, ensuring that gains made during pre-k can be sustained in school. California has also pioneered in developing curriculum standards, for infants and toddlers in child development programs as well as for preschoolers; what’s more, it has devised curriculum standards for the youngest English learners.

These efforts show the strides that the state has made in ensuring that poor children enter school ready to learn. A Race to the Top-Early Learning grant would maintain this momentum, strengthening the early learning programs that serve more than 400,000 poor children. Using a chunk of grant funds to help implement transitional kindergarten would be a godsend to financially strapped school districts. The federal money could also underwrite a system that links state and local early education initiatives, promoting greater efficiency and effectiveness.

The regulations from Washington are flexible enough to accommodate differences among states’ needs and budgetary realities. That means California can tailor its application to meet the state’s early learning priorities without having to spend more state dollars down the road. But Jerry Brown, whose sign-off is needed, hasn’t signaled whether he will go after those funds. The clock is ticking – don’t California’s youngest learners deserve a shot at this federal pot of gold?

David L. Kirp, Professor of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, is the author of Kids First: Five Big Ideas to Improve Children’s Lives and America’s Future.

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