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California dreams ... of Oklahoma: New hope for early childhood education

The cover article of the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle described the experiences of some “Grapes of Wrath” families – those who had come to California from Oklahoma after the dust bowl, and who are personified by the Joad family in John Steinbeck’s classic. It’s a similar story to that of my family – my grandfather gave up trying to make a living in Oklahoma and came to California to find prosperity. My grandmother stopped teaching in a one-room Oklahoma schoolhouse, and joined him. The term “Okie” made my grandfather bristle for the rest of his life.

So many of us Californians have come here with hope for a better future. This hopefulness may explain some of the results of a new Field Poll. It shows unquestionably that Californians believe in the importance of supporting our young children, so that they are best equipped to lead better, fuller, brighter lives than we have or our grandparents had. We want more educational opportunities for young learners, and we’re willing to pay for it.

The poll shows that a majority of Californians (55%) believe that it’s important to provide all four-year-olds with a year of schooling. But that feeling is held even more strongly among communities of color. Over two-thirds of Hispanics hold that opinion, as do more than three-quarters of African Americans.

This pattern popped up again on the question of whether California “should be doing more” to provide pre-school opportunities. Overall, the answer is yes, but Latinos and African Americans are even more likely to agree. When asked whether the state should provide this year of education to all four-year-olds or just those with low income, the majority felt that the state should offer pre-kindergarten universally.

The final finding of the study is a whopper. Pollsters explained to respondents that a new program offering universal, quality pre-kindergarten would likely be expensive – the program is estimated to run the state $1.4 billion a year once fully implemented. Again, the majority of respondents said it was worth it, even among people who do not have young children.

These findings tell me that a) Senator Steinberg is not going out on a limb by introducing the Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2014 (SB 837), which would offer a year of transitional kindergarten to all 4-year-olds; and b) that our own Too Small to Fail campaign, along with other great efforts to promote new research that demonstrates the importance of early brain development, is hitting its mark.

California would not be going out into a bold new world on its own if SB 837 passes. My grandparents’ old stomping ground of Oklahoma has been offering quality pre-kindergarten to all four-year-olds for years. New York City just passed a bill that will offer all four-year-olds quality, fully-funded pre-kindergarten, similar to the programs offered in Boston and San Antonio. New Jersey offers universal pre-kindergarten in certain high poverty areas.

So let’s go California. Let’s provide the next generation of families hope for a fresh start and real opportunity. We now know that the best way to do that is to offer supports to the littlest Joads among us. 

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