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California Democrats begin fight for free preschool

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - A proposal to offer free preschool to all California 4-year-olds faces its first legislative hurdle on Wednesday with strong support from majority Democrats' liberal wing but skepticism from Governor Jerry Brown 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.

"There's a 30-million word gap in the number of words heard by low-income children versus their higher income peers by age three," Steinberg said in an emailed statement Tuesday. "Without access to high quality-early childhood education, this gap is carried into kindergarten and through no fault of their own - before they've even started school - they are behind."

The proposal, under which California would offer a free pre-kindergarten year to all 4-year-olds, 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.

It 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.

As outlined by Steinberg, who spoke passionately about the program at the state Democrats' annual convention last month, the plan would ramp up over five years, gradually expanding an existing program aimed at children who turn five too late in the year to attend kindergarten.

The bill, to be heard in the senate education committee on Wednesday, would add about $300 million to the cost of education in the state during the 2015-2016 school year, Steinberg's office said. For the 2019-2020 school year, when the program is fully phased in, the cost of adding the 4-year-olds would be $1.5 billion.

Brown has repeatedly cautioned progressive lawmakers not to overspend now that the state has its first real surplus in years, and has expressed skepticism about taking on universal preschool.

He did not include the program in his budget proposal for next year, although it is expected to be a key part of upcoming budget talks between legislative leaders and the governor.

Republican senate leader Bob Huff was also skeptical, spokesman Peter DeMarco said.

"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?" DeMarco said.

The federal government and many states do offer early education to the poorest children, but the programs are not open to many blue-collar and middle-class families.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh)

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