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San Mateo County officials recommend universal preschool

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A Stanford study indicates spending money on early education reduces future public spending on social services.
  • A Stanford study indicates spending money on early education reduces future public spending on social services.

Deeming early childhood education an effective shield against crime, the income gap and high school truancy, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors recently passed a recommendation to funnel $5 million in Measure A tax revenue into a fund for early childhood learning programs.

The proposal — which originated from District 2 Supervisor Carole Groom and a broad coalition of teachers, child care workers and policy researchers — intends to solve a learning achievement gap that's become a scourge in the county, with 42 percent of third-graders not reading proficiently.

"Those who don't read well tend to stay behind," Groom said in an impassioned speech to introduce the proposal June 18. "They constitute 88 percent of dropouts."

She characterized both the reading skills deficit and the dropout rate as "a systems problem that requires a systems solution."

Groom and other members of the Peninsula Partnership Leadership Council — a public-private task force comprising educators, nonprofits and local businesses — said a solution is universal preschool and full-day kindergarten classes for children in San Mateo County.

Advocates of the early education programs have corroborated the proposal with longitudinal studies from Stanford University that show that investment in early education reduces a county's need for social services down the line.

Groom also pointed to a pilot program that provided preschool for all children in Redwood City between 2001 and 2002 using funds from the First 5 tobacco tax. Researchers tracked the program participants as they matriculated into elementary school and found that on average they performed better on standardized tests. Other Bay Area cities, such as Oakland, plan to launch similar programs this year, and San Francisco already offers free and low-cost preschool to all 4-year-olds living within its county lines.

At $5 million a year for its first two years, the Peninsula Partnership Leadership Council's child education proposal — alternately dubbed Preschool for All and The Big Lift — would use about one-eighth of the projected revenue from Measure A.

The program would also require more funds. San Mateo County's contribution would establish an Early Learning and Care Trust Fund, which would require matching contributions from other community resources. It may cost up to $40 million to get the program fully operational in a few years, and much of that would depend on the largesse of local businesses and nonprofits.

County supervisors have until September to divvy up the spoils of Measure A, and with various local agencies crippled by state budget cuts and slashed foundation funding, there's no shortage of competition for those funds. Other contenders mentioned at the June 18 meeting included library summer reading programs and fire trucks. The county's public parks also stand to gain a budget windfall this year.