Working paper

How to Expand and Improve Preschool in California

Ideals, Evidence, and Policy Options
Bruce Fuller
University of California, Berkeley
Alejandra Livas-Dlott
Wake County Smart Start
Margaret Bridges
University of California, Berkeley


The evidence is quite clear—after a half-century of research—that many children benefit from quality preschooling in terms of cognitive growth. Over 60% of California’s four-year-olds now attend a preschool center at least part-time. Yet enrollment rates lag behind for children from poor and working-class households—especially those from Asian, Latino, and non-English speaking families. Earlier research also reveals uneven quality among preschools, with middle-class families often confronting low-quality programs and high tuition costs.

Recent calls for a universal preschool system are prompting important policy debates within several California counties and Sacramento. How preschooling is expanded and improved—with limited public resources—depends on several key issues. The hopeful ideals of “preschool for all”—with children beginning school ready to learn—spark enthusiasm and broaden public will. But tough policy questions must be addressed by local and state policy makers:

  • Should California build and run a universal system of preschool, or should public support be targeted on families who face greater cost and quality constraints? In other words, who should benefit and who should pay?

  • Who should operate universal preschool—local schools or the current mixed market of providers, including nonprofit centers and licensed family childcare homes?

  • How can the quality of preschool be improved? Does raising the credential levels of teachers yield discernible gains for children? Would other policy options more cost-effectively boost quality and children’s development?

  • How should preschool be structured for diverse families? Does clearer specification of learning standards and formalization of instruction inside preschools benefit children? What language of instruction does formalization imply?

Policy strategies—such as subsidizing a wider range of families or advancing symbols of program quality that are easily recognized—stem from an earnest desire to widen public support. Proponents also invoke differing ideals about how young children should be cared for and instructed in preschool classrooms.

Evidence can play an important role—including drawing on the experience of other states—to inform which policy options will more likely yield intended outcomes for children and teachers. This review considers nationwide evidence on these pivotal questions, relating the findings to current debates in California.

Suggested citationFuller, B., Livas, A., & Bridges, M. (2005, March). How to expand and improve preschool in California: Ideals, evidence, and policy options [Working paper]. Policy Analysis for California Education.