When the revenue indicators are all wrong, there’s a tendency among city leaders to hunker down and resist ideas that add up to new spending.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom defies that tendency.

Newsom has trumpeted a new policy initiative – Kindergarten to College – to encourage kindergartners to sit on a nest egg dedicated to college a dozen years in the future.

The city would start the kindergartner off with a $50 trust fund ($100 if the student meets federal income guidelines to qualify for sudsidized lunches). On top of that fiscal beginning, if the child’s parents contributed $100 toward the trust fund, there would be a $100 match from EARN, a San Francisco nonprofit organization that partners with the city in programs of micro-loans and financial advice for low-income residents.

This program would set precedents with a city initiating the funding and with its universality.

“It’s been done on a smaller scale,” said David Augustine, policy and programs manager for San Francisco Treasurer Jose Cisneros. “But there’s been nothing done on a universal level for all children in a particular jurisdiction.”

Kindergarten to College would start on a pilot basis for all kindergartners in a diverse cross-section of San Francisco’s public schools, Augustine said. Over three years, the city would work up to offering it to all kindergartners in the district.

“We’re using a lot of good research that indicates that a child who has any money saved to go to college is seven times as likely to go to college as a child who doesn’t,” said Augustine.

In other cities, philanthropists and foundations have started such programs. Some of these, for instance, give money to one class in one year and track the class through its school years to see how many go onto college. Research has pointed to the benefits of attitude – it helps to get schoolchildren into the pre-college mindset at an early age.

“The benefits to the students, their families and ultimately our economy vastly outweigh the modest initial investment,” Newsom said in a news event to introduce Kindergarten to College.

In that May news conference at Cesar Chavez Elementary School, some college-bound high schoolers were there to inspire the kindergartners. Also, teachers and administrators were enthusiastic about integrating the lessons of compounding interest into the curriculum, Augustine said.  

“It’s starting a conversation about college and about savings, key topics at an early age,” said Augustine.

The city is negotiating with potential financial providers to manage such accounts, said Augustine.

The city is anticipating the first-year, limited rollout would cost $200,000. EARN has “stepped up,” Augustine said, by already raising $120,000 toward its segment – matching parents’ contributions.

The city has also discussed initiatives to have nonprofit groups or businesses “adopt” a school and incentivize, for example, good attendance, Augustine said.
Gavin Newsom is a mayor whose style is to put out a lot of civic ideas. He keeps an eye on whether his ideas are viewed as innovations by movers and shakers in politics and media.

With some of the ideas (not all), Newsom invests political capital in pushing to see the idea become law. Time will tell which category this one falls into.

The first year of Kindergarten to College is a funding request to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors as it cranks into high gear of budget deliberations. In the first burst of publicity, some supervisors and advocates expressed the obvious – it’s an odd time to be funding a new entitlement program. Others pointed out education funding, and ideas, become more critical at times of economic stress.

The idea needs to be looked at through two political prisms.

One is the political arena of San Francisco, where there are plenty of players to the left of Newsom. The other is the state of California, where Newsom is camped out on the far left and running a strong campaign for lieutenant governor (after abandoning a run for governor last year).

This trial balloon is floating over San Francisco and, with the prevailing political winds, toward Sacramento.

The timing is peculiar. The mayor is proposing an audacious new policy that will obviously take months (maybe years) of advocacy to shepherd through San Francisco City Hall. He’s proposing it at a time when he is aiming for political office in Sacramento next year.

Could the next lieutenant governor be someone who drums up attention in that often-sleepy job by pushing ambitious new policies? There would be a host of headlines and a ton of Tweets if there were a kindergarten policy initiative for the whole state …