Hard to believe that only a decade ago—back in the fall of 2014—the future of pre-kindergarten looked so promising in California.

State leaders were congratulating themselves on passing a budget and new legislation that promised more than 40,000 new full-day pre-K spots for low-income 4-year-olds. California was celebrated as a leader of a nationwide movement that would guarantee pre-school for every child someday.

Of course, a decade later, as I sit here composing this column on my brain’s iChip in 2024, we know that the day of universal pre-K never arrived.

For all their big ambitious promises in 2014, California’s leaders were so cautious in how they launched their new investment that they sabotaged a great opportunity for real social progress. When you’re trying to build something for the future, it can be reckless to be too careful in your construction, lest your creation is too small and weak to withstand the winds of time.

To be fair, universal pre-K—despite its popularity in polls and its economic potential (freeing parents to work and better preparing children for school and productive lives)—was never an easy thing to expand, or explain. Pre-K remains a somewhat amorphous concept, organized in many different ways and subject to many differing standards, funding sources, and even names (sometimes called “preschool,” “junior kindergarten,” or “transitional kindergarten”). Basic questions: How many kids already attend pre-K? What level of government should fund pre-K? Who should be accountable for the quality of pre-K?—have always been hard to answer.

Still, in 2014, when more than 35 states supported some form of pre-K, it seemed like we had a moment of real opportunity. That year, California decided to step up its existing programs by budgeting nearly $273 million for early learning and child development. This batch of money was to fund 11,500 new full-day preschool spaces for low-income 4-years-olds at first, and another 31,500 in future years. The legislation’s stated intent was to eventually cover pre-K for 234,000 children, or about half of all 4-year-olds in the state.

At the time, this first step—and a big promise about the future—seemed to make sense. The state was coming out of a decade-long budget crisis that had seen cuts to early childhood programs. So start slow and build support, the thinking went, and universal pre-K would follow.

But that was the wrong approach for California.

The new investment simply didn’t reach enough people to build a strong constituency for pre-K. In fact, the highly touted 2014 legislation covered fewer kids over multiple years (43,000) than New York City—with less than one-quarter of California’s population—managed to add in the fall of 2014 alone (more than 51,000). And by targeting low-income kids, the legislation made it hard for middle-class voters to see the new pre-K investment in their daily lives—and thus made it easy for critics to stigmatize pre-K as another need-based handout. There’s a reason why Social Security, Medicare, and housing support via the mortgage-interest deduction (as well as public education itself, for that matter) are far more popular than less costly programs targeting the poor.

The state of Georgia understood this basic political reality. Georgia today, as it did in 2014, boasts the country’s oldest and most durable public pre-K program, one that has survived tough budgetary times because of its universality. Conservative Republicans in that state’s legislature didn’t want to scale it back—their own kids and grandkids were in it.

It could have been so here as well. California in 2014 had a rare budget surplus, and enough money to cover every 4-year-old. In fact, that very same summer the legislature put just $273 million into pre-K, it threw even more money—$330 million a year—at incentives for motion picture production, even though TV and movies were already by then a mature, stagnant business. Heck, the state even offered $500 million to the electric car manufacturer Tesla to build a battery plant. (Fortunately for California, Nevada gave Tesla even more.)

Predictably, when the state budget surplus disappeared a few years later, the new pre-K investment was immediately vulnerable since it didn’t have any of the special protections—approval by ballot initiative or as a constitutional measure—of other California programs. And demographics worked against pre-K. With the birth rate falling, immigration flat, and young families leaving the state because of its exorbitant cost of living, the percentage of Californians with small children—and who would fight for pre-K—was shrinking.

At first, the state merely delayed some of the expansion promised in the 2014 legislation. But when a recession hit at the end of the decade, the axe came out. The legislature did the same things—reducing reimbursement rates to providers, adding fees that discouraged enrollment—it had done to early childhood education programs after the Great Recession hit in 2008. In the end, pre-K ended up worse off; today, in 2024, total spending on early childhood programs is actually lower than it was in 2008.

The derailment of universal pre-K affected more than enrollment figures. It stymied efforts to improve the quality of programs. The unstable funding dissuaded many people from devoting their career to pre-K and undertaking the education and training necessary to improve the teaching kids get. There also was less money to devote to research on the crucial questions of what makes some pre-K programs more effective than others.

Looking back at 2014, it’s frustrating to see how so many people knew the approach was flawed but were unable to do more. Indeed, the original legislation was much more ambitious, establishing a truly universal pre-K for all 4-year-olds. But powerful lawmakers and Governor Jerry Brown were obsessed with spending and preferred a program tailored to low-income kids. There was little discussion in Sacramento of the potential benefits of preschool programs that brought low-income kids together with middle-class and affluent kids.

Now, only a decade later, I find myself wishing the Mark Zuckerberg Institute—with its $1 trillion endowment and ownership of all the world’s accumulated personal data—were making more progress on its planned time travel machine. Because it sure would be nice to go back to 2014, and do pre-K differently.

Originally published in Zocalo Public Square.