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Senate advances scaled-down preschool proposal

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Education,California

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A plan to provide preschool programs for children in low-income families passed the state Senate on Thursday. But it represents a proposal that is far less than what its author had originally intended.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, modified his original $1 billion-plus proposal for universal preschool, which would have made the program available to all California children. His revised SB837 would still offer pre-kindergarten to more than 234,000 children, nearly half of all 4-year-olds in California, he said.

The Senate Budget Committee last week approved a companion proposal that would cost a projected $378 million in its first year. Steinberg said his hope is to find the money in the state's $107.8 billion budget before the Legislature passes a spending plan by June 15.

The bill now goes to the Assembly, where he said it could be used if pre-K is not funded in the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The program would be "a major advance in early childhood education" that can be accomplished with a "relatively limited amount of additional public dollars," Steinberg said.

The measure passed on a 26-10 vote, with one Republican — Sen. Anthony Cannella of Ceres — joining Democrats in support.

Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, said the state might better spend its education money on programs to keep teenagers from dropping out of school or paying down the state's long-term debt. He also cited studies suggesting that the benefits from preschool largely disappear by the time children reach fourth grade.

Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer said the Brown administration is generally concerned about the Legislature's intentions to spend money that is largely expected to flow from an increase in revenue from the volatile capital gains tax. That revenue could dwindle again in future years if the economy cools.

The benefits of spending money on the preschool program outweigh the risks, supporters said. Children who start learning early are more likely to stay in school and less likely to get in trouble, they said.

"We cannot afford not to do this," said Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, citing the need to keep up with similar programs in other industrialized nations. "We would be penny-wise and indeed pound foolish not to start this work yesterday."

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