California Democrats to push for free preschool

By Sharon Bernstein SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - A top California lawmaker on Tuesday is expected to unveil a proposal to fund free public preschool for all children in the most populous U.S. state. The plan by Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat, to offer a pre-kindergarten program to four-year-olds in the western state comes as he and other Democratic legislators try to push California Governor Jerry Brown to increase spending on social services, including education, in next year's budget. Steinberg and senate Democrats who support his plan expect to introduce legislation establishing the pre-kindergarten program this week, said the senator's spokesman, Mark Hedlund. The proposal is expected to involve expanding an existing program aimed at children who turn five years old too late in the year to attend regular kindergarten. Details such as the cost of the plan would be released on Tuesday, Hedlund said. Brown, who previously governed the state from 1975 to 1983, has toed a centrist line since taking the helm again in 2011. He has repeatedly cautioned progressive legislators not to overspend now that the state has its first real surplus in years. His proposed budget for 2014-2015, which would go into effect in July, is expected to reflect massive changes to the way California funds education. Under a new program pushed through by Brown last year, extra funds are funneled to schools with large populations of children who are poor or do not speak English. A spokesman for Brown on Monday said the governor, who is set to release his budget on Friday, has no comment on the preschool plan. Steinberg's proposal was welcomed by education advocate Ted Lempert, who said studies have repeatedly shown that children who attend high-quality pre-school programs do better than those who do not. "Higher income families are already making sure their children have access to high quality pre-kindergarten," said Lempert, president of the Oakland-based group Children Now. "It's imperative that all kids have access to that - so you don't have an achievement gap before kids are even entering kindergarten." Even though the majority of states offer some sort of preschool program for low-income families, few states offer so-called "universal preschool" for all children. Parents whose incomes are too high to qualify for state-run programs must pay out-of-pocket for private ones or find other childcare options. Under a plan proposed last year by President Barack Obama but stalled in Congress, the federal government would spend $75 billion over 10 years to widen access to state preschool programs for lower-income families. The plan also sought to encourage states to broaden access so middle-class families could opt in. (Editing by Eric M. Johnson and Eric Walsh)