By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, Calif., May 22 (Reuters) - California Democrats on Thursday dramatically scaled back their proposal for universal pre-kindergarten under opposition from Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat who has charted a moderate fiscal course despite pressure from many within his party to use a projected surplus to increase spending on social services.
The $2.5 billion plan to offer free preschool to all 4-year-olds had been the top legislative effort this year by the state senate's highest ranking Democrat, Darrell Steinberg, who is leaving office at the end of the year.
"My aspiration, which has not changed, is universal preschool for all 4-year-olds regardless of income," Steinberg said in an interview on Thursday. "But that's a significant cost over the short term."
Now, Steinberg is proposing free preschool for 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 after Sept. 1, the state's cutoff for starting kindergarten. The plan 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 what is known as universal pre-K is gaining traction around the country.
President Barack Obama called for a broad expansion of public pre-school in his State of the Union speech last year, though the move stalled in Congress. Bill de Blasio made universal pre-K a centerpiece of his successful New York mayoral 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 the governor would review the proposal, but remains concerned that it commits the state to additional spending.
"Our overarching caution and concern is committing the state to higher ongoing levels of spending," said spokesman H.D. Palmer.
The children served under Steinberg's program are already eligible for free pre-school, said education advocate Deborah Kong, president of Early Edge California.
But the state has not been putting enough money in the programs to fund classroom spots for all of the needy children, and Steinberg's new plan would do that.
"We think that this is a huge step forward," Kong said. "Right now less than half of low-income kids who are eligible get preschool."
The proposal would provide kindergarten preparatory classes for about 234,000 children, about half the number who would have been served under the earlier, more ambitious program, Steinberg's office said.
The proposal and a similar measure in the state assembly have wide support among Democrats.
Steinberg's plan would start in the 2015-2016 school year. He says $900 million of the total cost could be taken from a program for children who turn 5 too late in the year for kindergarten.
Brown is proposing spending $685 million on that program, which is expected to serve 96,000 children from all income levels in 2014-2015, said Palmer. (Editing by Mohammad Zargham)