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Should California use early education funding for all, or only the needy?

When then-state senator Joe Simitian spearheaded an initiative to move the kindergarten birthday cutoff date from December to September in 2010, he wanted to make sure that the 4-year-old kids who would be excluded from starting that year wouldn't languish. 

That's why he drove the creation of transitional kindergarten, or TK, a new public school grade for children born in the months between September and December, to get them ready for school. 

“We used to think of kindergarten as the ‘get ready year for real school,’ but these days kindergarten is real school. There are academic standards for kindergarten,” Simitian said. “So TK has become that 'get ready' year and it’s just doing a great job.”

Now a Santa Clara County Supervisor, Simitian is one of a number of TK supporters protesting Governor Jerry Brown's new plan to eliminate the program and pour its funding into a larger pot to pay for pre-school for low-income children.

Currently, the state spends roughly $700 million a year on TK – but Brown has eliminated it from his proposed budget for the coming fiscal year. The future of TK will be decided in budget negotiations between the governor and legislators, who have put forth plans to keep TK.

Brown said his goal is to concentrate early childhood funding on the state's neediest children, who still don't have enough access to Pre-K programs. In Los Angeles County alone, only 41 percent of preschool-age children have access to a licensed childcare spot, and shortages are far worse in low-income neighborhoods. And L.A. is facing the loss of an additional 11,000 seats in June when funding for Los Angeles Universal Preschool expires.

“We have limited resources for early education,” said Jessica Holmes, a finance budget analyst for the California Department of Finance. “This focuses our limited funds on children who need it the most who are low income and at risk.”

The governor's plan would collapse all of the various funding streams that currently pay for different early childhood programs, including infant and toddler care, state preschool and transitional kindergarten. The money would be distributed to school districts, who could spend the funds as they choose, as long as they serve low-income children. 

Advocates like Simitian said the proposal could end up hurting needy children by removing one access point and by making the funds that pay for their education more vulnerable to economic ups and downs and changing political tides.

"The funding stream that actually serves these kids would suddenly become a much weaker one," said Kim Pattillo Brownson, managing director of policy at advocacy group the Advancement Project.

The Brown administration argues that, even if TK is successfully preparing 4-year-olds for kindergarten, the state shouldn't be spending public funds on educating middle- and upper-income young children whose parents can afford care.  

That's a view shared by Michael Kirst, president of the state Board of Education.

“I don’t think we have the money at this stage to pay for early childhood education for all income groups," he said. "Does the state have the responsibility to pay for children’s education from zero on or one year on for people living in Bel Air and Beverly Hills?"

The state doesn't keep records of TK enrollment, and so it's unclear how many low-, middle- and upper-income children currently attend the program. 

But under the governor's plan, districts with few low-income children, like Beverly Hills, will retain the same amount of funding that they are currently receiving for their TK programs, which is apportioned based on the total number of 4-year-olds in the district.

Theoretically, school districts could choose to keep TK for low-income 4-year-olds, since Brown's plan gives them freedom on how to use the grant.

But that's not a given and some educators fear parents will be forced to either send their children to another year of preschool – without the added educational value that research has shown TK provides – or worse, sit out of school for the year altogether. They worry thousands of young students won't be ready to enter increasingly rigorous kindergarten programs. 

"[For] the teachers, it would be very very difficult ... to take that step backwards again, to having these children that are just not socially emotionally ready for the rigors of what kindergarten expectations are nowadays," said Estella Grimm, principal of Richman Elementary School in the Fullerton School District,

Pattillo Brownson of the Advancement Project said the governor's proposal also has the potential to hurt early education programs because state funding for early childhood programs is not protected – it can be slashed in tough budget years.

TK funding, in contrast, has been part of public education budgets, which are protected, she explained.

More than 100 groups, including school districts, civil rights organizations, labor unions and even some business groups have joined a coalition calling to retain TK.

On Tuesday, the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Education Finance voted unanimously to support a $619 million early education plan that would preserve TK as it is currently structured and add 16,000 new early education slots – a plan that Speaker Anthony Rendon, a former early childhood administrator, has thrown his support behind.

The fight over the future of TK will now proceed primarily behind closed doors in Sacramento, as lawmakers and the governor hash out their competing plans. The Legislature has until June 15 to put forth a final budget package.

As the policy and budget fights play out, teachers are wrapping up the fourth year of transitional kindergarten.

In Fullerton, Richman Elementary TK teacher Eva Aerreola has started taking down the artwork and projects from her classroom walls.

She’s satisfied that her students have excelled this year. She said she's especially happy “seeing students that haven’t had any preschool background, they’re English learners, coming in not knowing one letter or anything, and just exiting out of the program having [that] knowledge.”

Her kids are ready for kindergarten, she said proudly. As to whether she will still be teaching TK two years from now, Aerreola shrugged.

“I hope so,” she said.