By Sharon Noguchi and Jessica Calefati
Reflecting the growing national focus on preschool, a majority of California voters approve extending public schooling to 4-year-olds, even if it costs the state an additional $1.4 billion, a Field Poll released Friday shows.
A 57 percent majority — including 56 percent of those without children under age 6 — responded that the state should offer all 4-year-olds free preschool.
The poll offers a boost to legislative Democrats’ efforts to expand public preschool from a small segment of children just missing the kindergarten cutoff date to all 4-year-olds in California.
“We’re excited,” said Scott Moore of Early Edge California, a preschool advocacy group. “We think it’s a recognition of the impact that high-quality preschool has on students’ achievement and later-life success.”
He believes the support results from national attention, from President Barack Obama on down, on the importance of preschool, especially for low-income children.
When asked simply whether they thought an additional school year was important, without any mention of the cost, 79 percent of the 1,000 voters polled agreed, with especially strong support among minority groups.
Asked who they thought should have access to free preschool, 51 percent said all 4-year-olds, while 38 percent said only low-income 4-year-olds.
Even though only one-quarter of respondents knew about California’s transitional kindergarten program, which prepares students for kindergarten, 60 percent of respondents said they supported it.
When asked how the state was doing in providing young children with opportunities to attend preschool, 56 percent answered it should be doing more, 25 percent said it was doing the right amount, 12 percent thought the state is doing too much and 7 percent had no opinion. Again support for the state doing was strongest among minorities.
While an estimated two-thirds of California’s 4-year-olds attend preschool or day care, a 2009 Rand study found that only 13 percent of low-income children were enrolled in a high-quality preschool, with trained teachers, a low teacher-student ratio and curriculum appropriate for their age and development.
The poll did not ask whether respondents would be willing to pay increased taxes, or sacrifice other programs, for transitional kindergarten.
“It really should ask, ’How much are you willing to pay?’ ” said Mark Hinkle, president of the Silicon Valley Taxpayers Association. “This is pretty much a jobs program for teachers.”
He asserted that preschool gives low-income students advantages that wear off after only a few years.
But preschool advocates point to studies that show quality preschool helps to close the gap between disadvantaged and middle-class children. Adding a year of public school would give low-income students some of the advantages of their wealthier peers. By age 5, low-income children are two years behind wealthier kids in language development, Moore said. “The longer we wait to help them catch up, the harder it is.”
Ashley Campbell of Oakland is enthusiastic about her 4-year-old son entering transitional kindergarten in August. Unlike school decades ago, kindergarten now is full of academics, with no nap time and an expectation that children sit still and learn. Campbell’s daughter, now 7, had a hard time getting used to the work schedule. For her son, she worried, “It would be hard for him to adjust from preschool to kindergarten.”
While such transitional kindergarten classes will be available to children turning 5 from Sept. 2 through Dec. 2, state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg has introduced a bill to gradually expand the classes to all 4-year-olds.
Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said the poll signals that the public is as interested as he is in making sure California’s children all have a fair start. “The public is hungry to make this kind of smart investment,” he said. “The poll affirms that people are willing to pay when they know that they will receive value in return, and the value here is making sure kids are ready for school.”
But his bill faces a hurdle in Gov. Jerry Brown, who is less enthusiastic about using state surplus funds to create an expensive new program. His office declined to comment on the poll.
When introducing his 2014-15 budget, which includes no funds for expanding transitional kindergarten, the governor said, “Wisdom and prudence is the order of the day. And when you see this kind of liability, one has to hesitate before anything too major.”
That doesn’t temper the enthusiasm of educators for expanding preschool.
For San Jose’s tiny Luther Burbank School District, where 91 percent of students come from low-income families, Superintendent Jan Kaay said, “Providing a transitional kindergarten for all 4-year-olds at Luther Burbank would give students the gift of an additional year of learning to share, follow directions, work and play together with others.” Academic vocabulary is new to most of the district’s students, she noted, and an extra year of preparation she said, “would help them develop the social and academic skills to succeed in their learning career.”
The poll, conducted in English and Spanish by telephone in March and April, was done in conjunction with the Oakland-based education research and policy organization EdSource. It has an overall margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.
Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/noguchionk12.
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