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Scaled-back preschool bill advances in California legislature

By Jennifer Chaussee

SACRAMENTO Calif. (Reuters) - A bill to offer free preschool to 4-year-olds from low-income California families advanced in the state legislature on Thursday, a scaled-down version of a broader proposal that would have provided for universal public pre-kindergarten.

State Democrats scaled back a $2.5 billion proposal for universal pre-kindergarten last week that had faced opposition from Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat who has charted a moderate fiscal course despite pressure from some within his party to use a projected budget surplus to raise spending on social services.

"Not one K-12 reform can address the reality that the achievement gap is formed before children arrive in kindergarten. At age 5, low-income children are more than two years behind in language development,” said Darrell Steinberg, the state Senate’s top Democrat.

“Children with low reading skills are 60 percent more likely to drop out of school,” said Steinberg, who is leaving office at the end of the year and had made the preschool plan his top legislative effort this year.

Steinberg’s revised proposal, called the “Fair Start” bill, would give free preschool to children whose families make less than twice the federal poverty level, using funds that had been earmarked for children of all incomes who turn 5 too late in the year to start kindergarten.

The plan, which heads to the lower house on a 26-10 vote, would cost about $1.3 billion.

The revamped proposal, unveiled as negotiations over the state budget are heating up, comes at a time when a call for universal pre-K is gaining traction around the country.

President Barack Obama called for a broad expansion of public preschool in his State of the Union speech last year, though the move stalled in Congress. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio made universal pre-K a centerpiece of his successful election campaign.

"From our perspective, 'low-income' includes about half the kids in the state," said Ted Lempert, president of Oakland-based Children Now. "The need is very significant."

A spokesman for Brown said last week that the governor would review the proposal, but remains concerned that it commits the state to additional spending.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)

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