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Brown's California Preschool Overhaul Raises Concerns

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Gov. Jerry Brown walks through the state Capitol before releasing his January budget proposal last week. With him is his top budget aide, Director of Finance Michael Cohen.

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Gov. Jerry Brown wants to reshape California’s state-funded preschool, but his proposal worries some Democratic lawmakers and early education advocates.

Brown wants to combine three state-funded early education programs, strip their requirements and let each local school district decide how to best spend the money.

But there’s a catch: districts must prioritize low-income and at-risk four year olds.

“We’re trying to increase local flexibility and make sure that the dollars are focused on helping the poorest students,” says Director of Finance Michael Cohen, the governor’s top budget aide.

Asm. Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) chairs the subcommittee that will review the plan. He isn’t sold.

“It doesn’t have any resources to focus on improved quality,“ McCarty says. “And it would get rid of a (transitional kindergarten) system which is only a few years old which has produced some great results to date.”

Transitional kindergarten is a pre-K program for kids who turn five years old between Sep. 2 and Dec. 2.

And there are other concerns: “It appears to put a significant threat in place against the community-based preschools that we’ve had for decades,” says Erin Gabel with First 5 California, the voter-created state commission that funds early learning.

Most of all, it’s about money. The state cut more than $1 billion from early education programs during the recession, and has only restored about a quarter of it.

Michael Cohen, the governor’s Director of Finance, hints more money could come – in time.

“It’s important to set up the structure and get consensus on what the program will look like,“ Cohen says. “And then at that point, it will become an annual budget decision about what amount of funding makes sense.”

In other words, it’s all up for negotiation.