In a move that would broadly expand public education, California Democrats on Tuesday proposed creating universal preschool for 4-year-olds, to try to enroll more children from immigrant and low-income families.

The program would be voluntary, just as kindergarten is in California. It would phase in over five years beginning in the 2015-16 school year and could cost the state $1 billion annually when fully implemented -- adding an estimated 350,000 children to public schools.

Proponents argue that those costs would be offset by savings later on. They point to studies showing that preschool prepares children for school, resulting in fewer being held back to repeat a year, lowered numbers in costly special-education classes, and fewer students failing in school and ending up in prison.

The state already funds preschool for certain 4-year-olds -- those just missing the cutoff date to start kindergarten because they have birthdays toward the end of the year. SB 837 would order school districts and charter schools to make that class, known as transitional kindergarten, available to all 4-year-olds.

"Expanding transitional kindergarten for all 4-year-olds is the unfinished business of last year's important school reform," which revamped the state's school funding formula, said Sen. Darrell Steinberg, the author of SB 837. He called it the Democrats' No. 1 priority this year.


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While the children of middle-class and wealthy families usually attend preschool, only half of California's low-income children attend either State Preschool or federally funded Head Start programs. Kids who start kindergarten without any school experience generally lag behind their peers in both academic and social spheres.

If the bill picks up support from influential teachers unions and education advocates like the state PTA and the school boards association, California would join only a handful of states -- Georgia, Oklahoma and Florida -- with universal preschool. The bill already has the support of state superintendent of schools Tom Torlakson. But it's far from certain that Gov. Jerry Brown -- who proposed defunding transitional kindergarten in its first year, would sign it.

The Kindergarten Readiness Act would phase in an expanded transitional kindergarten program, currently is available to children who turned 5 from Oct. 2 to Dec. 2. The proposed bill, meanwhile, would make children whose birthdays fall from Sept. 2 to Feb. 1 in the 2015-16 school year eligible for transitional kindergarten.

In each of the following three years, the bill would expand the window of eligibility -- based on children's birthdays -- by two months.

In the final year of the phase-in, all children who turn 5 during the 2019-20 school year would be eligible to enroll in transitional kindergarten. Potentially, California could need 8,000 additional teachers and 12,000 classroom aides.

The bill estimates the cost per student at $6,000; the average state cost of for a K-12 student is $9,000.

Contrary to Brown's push to release schools from the state's apron strings, the preschool bill includes several mandates: To hold down costs, districts must require transitional kindergarten teachers to teach morning and afternoon sessions. Each class must also have an aide; and class size would be limited to 20 children.

The bill repairs what state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, a bill co-author, called a "drafting error" in a previous bill establishing transitional kindergarten.

As a result of the loophole in the law authored by former state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, the Las Lomitas School District has refused to offer transitional kindergarten, and the neighboring Menlo Park City School District plans to stop offering the program next school year.

While the California Department of Education and most school districts have interpreted the law as mandating transitional kindergarten, the two districts in San Mateo County, backed by their attorneys, have maintained that the program is not mandatory.

"It could be interpreted as voluntary," said Hill, who succeeded Simitian in the Senate. Initially he proposed fixing the law. "Since Joe started it, I wanted to be able to finish it."

Then, he said, talks to close the loophole expanded, to offer transitional kindergarten for all 4-year-olds.

Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.