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LAUSD preschool program in peril with help still 2 years away

Vanessa Romo | May 4, 2015

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Preschool childrenLA Unified is on the brink of cutting a highly-successful preschool program for some of the district’s poorest children at the same time that members of the California state assembly are trying to expand early education programs for all low-income pre-Kindergarten students.

The district’s School Readiness Language Development Program (SRLDP) is just one of a handful of programs for district pre-schoolers, but it is the only one that is entirely financed by general funds with no supplemental contributions from state or federal revenue to help cover the $36 million price tag. That makes it perpetually vulnerable to cuts, especially in lean years, and next year is no different.

With the district facing a $113 million deficit in 2015-16, Superintendent Ramon Cortines has proposed cutting SRLDP over the next two years, a decision that would impact 10,000 children, nearly a third of the district’s 35,000 four-year olds enrolled in preschool.

But even as the district program teeters on the precipice of extinction, the state Assembly Committee on Education is pushing AB 47, the Preschool for All Act of 2015, legislation that would provide sufficient funding to guarantee “every low-income 4 year old with access to preschool” by 2017.

While the bill is far from becoming law — it will be heard next in the Assembly Appropriation Committee later this month — the prospect of future state support has some LA Unified school board members calling on Cortines to continue funding SRLDP until a decision is made at the state level.

In recent days board members Bennett Kayser and Monica Ratliff met with the district’s chief lobbyist, Edgar Zazueta, to develop a strategy for seeking help from the state to keep the district program alive.

“It doesn’t make any sense for us to cut this program if AB 47 passes,” board member Steve Zimmer told LA School Report, “because then we know that there’s a pathway to ongoing funding, and it’s not an indefinite budget liability.”

At that point, he added, “it’s just our job to create a bridge until 2017, and we can absolutely find a way to do that.”

The pre-school language program has been praised for its effectiveness in helping to close the achievement gap between some of the district’s wealthiest and poorest students. That is why Zimmer says, even if AB 47 doesn’t pass, “it’s going to be very hard to justify essentially shutting down a very successful program that benefits students in the most peril, that helps them be the best prepared they can be.”

“If our children come to kindergarten with gaps in their preparation that we know we could have addressed through SRLDP it will be a pox on our budgeting house,” Zimmer said.

Cutting the program to save $36 million — a drop in the bucket as part of the district’s $7.3 billion annual budget — is also incredibly short-sighted, according to Zimmer, who recognizes the benefits of enrolling young children in district run-programs.

Enrollment in district schools is expected to decline in the 2015-2016 school year for a 12th consecutive year. In the most recent year for which the district has figures, 2013-2014, the K-through-12 enrollment was 651,322, a 2 percent drop from two years before. District officials estimate that every 3 percent drop costs the district $100 million in funding.

Reasons for the declines are blamed on a lower birth rate and attrition to charter schools, which are why Zimmer says sustaining early education programs is vital to the district’s mission of increasing enrollment.

While the district is footing the bill for pre-school, those children are more likely to enroll in local public schools over the next 13 years, which, over time means hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.

In the case of the 10,000 SRLDP students, who, according to Zimmer, have “outstanding track record of enrolling in LAUSD schools,” they represent $104,220,000 in Average Daily Attendance revenue if they were to enroll in kindergarten at a district school. Were they to remain in the district through graduation, they would bring an additional $1.35 billion.

“My best chance of competing with charter schools is to have students enrolling in a high quality early education program at a school where that child can enroll as a kindergarten student because then they stay,” Zimmer said. “And isn’t that what we want?”

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