(Recast with committee passage)
By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, Calif., April 9 (Reuters) - A proposal to offer free preschool to all California four-year-olds passed its first legislative hurdle on Wednesday with support from Democrats but facing skepticism from Governor Jerry Brown and some educators that could doom its chances this year.
The $1.5 billion program is being pushed hard by the state senate's Democratic leader, Darrell Steinberg, who is leaving office at the end of this year and views it as key to his legacy in the most populous U.S. state.
"Thirty million words - that's the gap between the number of words heard by low-income children and their middle- and upper-income peers," Steinberg told the senate education committee. "That number astounds me. They are behind before they even get started in their formal schooling."
The bill, which passed the senate education committee on Wednesday, comes as a call for universal pre-K is gaining traction around the country. Last week, lawmakers in New York state included $300 million for public preschool programs there, and Oklahoma also offers them.
The idea is favored by many education advocates, who say children whose parents cannot afford preschool fall behind quickly once they get to kindergarten, and many never catch up.
The California proposal let districts offer pre-K in public schools or pay private operators.
The plan would roll out gradually over five years, starting with children with January birthdays and gradually expanding. Children would not be required to attend.
The proposal, which goes next to the senate's appropriations committee, is key to Democrats' efforts to stake out progressive political ground at a time when Brown, also a Democrat, has charted a more centrist path.
But it drew criticism from some private preschool operators who feared it could drive them out of business, and some administrators concerned it would be costly and difficult to implement as districts also deal with changes to how the state funds education and new national academic standards.
The bill would cost about $300 million during the 2015-2016 school year, growing to $1.5 billion in 2019-2020, when the program is phased in, Steinberg's office said.
Brown has cautioned lawmakers not to overspend now that the state has its first real surplus in years, and is skeptical about taking on universal preschool. He did not include the program in his budget proposal for next year.
Republicans are also skeptical.
"Not two years after the governor and the Democrats convinced Californians to raise taxes because we were out of money, why are we now going to spend billions of dollars on a new program?" said Peter DeMarco, spokesman for Republican leader Bob Huff. (Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh)