Mercury News editorial: Preschool program makes sense for California

Gov. Jerry Brown insists that he wants to be prudent with the state budget, but if there’s any extra money available, he wants to spend it on high-speed rail.

Ha ha ha — oops, wait. It’s not a joke.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg has a better plan. He wants to take $350 million of the $2.4 billion in extra tax revenues the Legislative Analyst’s Office says will be available and spend it on preschool programs for children of low-income families — a slimmed down version of his original universal preschool proposal.

It’s a time-tested investment. Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman has demonstrated that preschool is one of the best bargains going, providing up to a 10 percent return from savings in other programs. Kids who have access to preschool consistently outperform those who don’t, not just in the classroom but also later in life.

Legislators face a constitutional deadline Friday for passing a budget. After that, they won’t get paid, so we’re betting they meet it. They should get behind Steinberg’s preschool proposal and tell the governor that if he’s not going to dump the high-speed rail boondoggle, he at least needs to get his priorities straight for the limited money available.

Except for his focus on high-speed rail and a continuing reluctance to come to grips with state pension liabilities, Brown’s overall approach to the budget is reasonable.

Restoring social services and other programs to help the poor, who have dramatically lost ground since the recession, has appeal. But the state’s economy remains fragile, and Brown’s plan to build up extra reserves makes sense to cushion against the possibility of another slump.

The budget battle between the governor and the Legislature is being portrayed as an intraparty struggle because Democrats control both houses. In reality, Sacramento insiders acknowledge, the dispute represents only about 2 percent of the total budget.

Surely the state can take a small portion of that 2 percent to create a preschool program for poor children that will help them compete in the classroom.

Critics say a preschool plan should have a sunset provision and include a requirement for a study of its effectiveness. That would be a waste. Study after study already has shown kids who go to preschool are more likely to graduate from high school, have a job and stay out of jail. Instead of wasting money on a new study, spend it to make the program top quality.

With limited revenue and an uncertain economic future, California needs to invest in programs that will save money in the long run. Preschool for low-income kids does this by reliably preparing them to succeed in school and in life. Brown’s unwillingness to fund it while tossing every spare dollar into the high-speed rail bottomless pit is unfathomable.


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