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Making Universal Preschool A Reality

By Heather Murtagh

In San Mateo County, more than 3,220 children ages 0 to 12 are affected by state-subsidized programs. A majority of those students are preschool age, according to the San Mateo County Office of Education.
Expanding educational access and offering quality learning programs for children 5 and younger will take collaboration, dedicated funds and a plan with benchmarks according to educational officials participating in a universal preschool panel discussion yesterday. 

"Universal Preschool: Dream or Reality" drew more than 50 people to Santa Clara yesterday to discuss how to meet needs in birth to preschool education. A number of steps are already in place to help create a needed blueprint for achieving this feat. However, counties throughout the state still struggle to offer free, quality preschool to all. San Mateo County has grown access to very low-income families in recent years. This summer, a new plan focused on expanding quality throughout the county will be released.

"A blueprint and funding are critical," explained state Superintendent Jack O'Connell. "We cannot use the budget as an excuse to not plan for quality educational opportunities for our kids."

Funding may come partially through the federal stimulus package which includes $5 billion for early care and education, of which $500 million could go to California. Organizations statewide are working together to secure these funds.

If secured, the state would have funding to start meeting President Obama's recent challenge: To develop a cutting-edge plan to raise the quality of early learning programs. 

The major challenges facing counties are access and expanding quality. In San Mateo County, more than 3,220 children ages 0 to 12 are affected by state-subsidized programs. A majority of those students are preschool age, according to the San Mateo County Office of Education. In recent years, the local focus has been expanding access to preschool in low economic areas. The focus will shift in the coming months to begin stressing quality educational programs for infants and beyond, said Debby Armstrong, executive director for the First 5 Commission in San Mateo County.


Even with diminishing availability to funds, the need to build upon what is already established remains, Armstrong said. One way to do that is working with other counties, she said.

Maintaining consistent quality and access is complicated by the variety of programs offered through the state, explained E3 Institute Director Yolanda Garcia. E3 works to increase community access to high-quality early education.

Part of the plan is evaluating programs as they are and creating incentives to improve the quality, said Catherine Atkin, president of Preschool California, a nonprofit advocacy group with a goal to increase access to preschool.

Getting public support to fund such programs has proven difficult. In 2006, California voters turned down Proposition 82 known as the Preschool for All Act. Panelists attributed the defeat to the lack of confidence in the California legislatures' spending. Confidence in public leaders as well as accountability in a program will be needed to move forward. Along with program funding, money will be needed for facilities. O'Connell anticipated a state school bond measure in 2010 which could include new facilities for early education facilities.

In San Mateo County, the Office of Education State Preschool program partnered with Head Start/Early Head Start grantee, Institute for Human and Social Development to offer a growing number of very low-income families full-day preschool services. Plans to grow are in the works, however they will require partnerships with local school districts, some of which are facing capacity issues.

In late September, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed two bills aimed to streamline funding for preschools and develop framework for improving the quality of preschool education.

Assembly Bill 2759, known as the California State Preschool Program Act of 2008, streamlines the various preschool programs. California had five child development programs for preschool-aged children: State Preschool, Full-Day State Preschool, Prekindergarten and Family Literacy, Prekindergarten and Family Literacy Full-Day and General Child Care and Development Programs. Each requires similar information presented in different ways. The clerical work is now streamlined allowing more time for programs to expand.

Preschools will also be looked at more closely for quality after the passage of Senate Bill 1629, called the Early Learning Quality Improvement Act. Approval establishes a commission to create a state early learning quality improvement system aimed at developing framework for improving California preschools.

The group met last week for the first time, O'Connell noted yesterday. In doing its research, the committee will also take note of programs in other states.


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Heather Murtagh can be reached by e-mail: [email protected] or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 105.

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