During her final planned press conference as mayor, Libby Schaaf launched a universal preschool initiative supported by funds raised from Measure AA. Credit: Amir Aziz

After a yearslong court battle, Oakland will begin implementing universal preschool access that could provide early childhood education to 6,000 low-income children, city leaders said Wednesday.

In her last scheduled press conference as mayor, Libby Schaaf announced the rollout of the initiative. It will be paid for with money from Measure AA, a parcel tax approved by voters in 2018 that will raise about $30 million per year for 30 years. Two-thirds of the funding will go to expanding access to high-quality preschools, while one-third will support college readiness. While low-income families will be targeted, the goal is for all 3 and 4-year-olds in Oakland to have access to preschool.

“We’ve always tried to act in the best long-term interest of Oakland, and what is a more precious long-term interest than our children and the next generation?” Schaaf said. 

A 15-person citizen’s commission will work with the initiative’s accountability officer, Jennifer Caban, to oversee the implementation of Measure AA. First Five Alameda County, a county agency that ensures the well-being of children from 0 to 5, will receive $23 million and Oakland Promise, which provides college scholarships to Oakland students, will receive $11.5 million to start.

City officials offered little detail about what the expanded access will look like. But Caban said that she would be working with Head Start centers, Oakland Unified School District’s early childhood education department, and other preschool partners over the next six months to determine their capacity for expansion, and her team will also begin outreach to families whose incomes are at or below 85% of the area’s median income. Families could start taking advantage of expanded preschool services within the next 18 months. 

“Currently, there are a little over 6,000 low-income children who are 3 or 4-year-olds that will gain access,” Caban said.

Preschool offerings in Oakland include private centers, Head Start, which is a free federally funded preschool program for low-income families, state-run programs, and early childhood centers operated by Oakland Unified School District. 

The expanded access comes as the state is increasing investments in early childhood education, which has been shown to improve readiness for kindergarten. Transitional kindergarten, an additional grade below kindergarten that’s currently offered at some but not all OUSD elementary schools, is gradually being expanded until it accommodates all 4-year-olds. Oakland Unified has also pursued millions of dollars in state grants to renovate its early childhood education facilities and expand existing programs. 

“We will focus on the most marginalized and neediest children in Oakland, but we also have a target to have this be a universal enterprise—that all children, regardless of their condition in Oakland will have access to quality education opportunities,” said Jorge Lerma, who leads the citizen’s oversight commission. “Oakland cannot just be about developing commercial interests. It has to be about developing human beings.” 

Although the mayor’s office has no formal authority over public education in Oakland, Mayor Schaaf, whose term ends Jan. 2, prioritized education investments during her two terms and spearheaded several large-scale initiatives: Oakland Promise, an organization that provides college scholarships and support with navigating the college application process; Oakland Undivided, a pandemic-era initiative to lend laptops to Oakland public school students; and Teachers Rooted in Oakland, a residency program that provides housing to aspiring educators. 

In August, alongside Schaaf, Vice President and Oakland native Kamala Harris came to the city to announce the $50 million Generation Fund to support low-income students pursuing a college education or trade certificate.

“I think the thing I’m most proud of is what we’re leaving for Oakland’s children,” Schaaf said of her office’s education initiatives. “These are things that are going to create a next generation [with] more opportunities, more health, and vitality.”

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Mayor Libby Schaaf poses with her education team, education director David Silver and deputy director Kyra Mungia. Credit: Amir Aziz

Schaaf added that her education team has raised more than $100 million in private philanthropic funds for education programs in Oakland. 

Measure AA had been mired in legal battles since it was approved by 62% of voters in 2018. Although the language of the measure specified that it needed two-thirds approval by voters to pass, the City Council later determined that only a simple majority was needed. A group of citizens then sued the city to block its implementation. But in December 2021, a California appeals court upheld the measure’s passage on the legal grounds that citizen-led ballot initiatives need only a simple majority to pass, regardless of the language on the ballot. 

Ashley McBride writes about education equity for The Oaklandside. Her work covers Oakland’s public district and charter schools. Before joining The Oaklandside in 2020, Ashley was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Francisco Chronicle as a Hearst Journalism Fellow, and has held positions at the Poynter Institute and the Palm Beach Post. Ashley earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.