Three years ago, adult education was on the chopping block at Los Angeles Unified. Money was tight and the classes were considered a luxury the district could no longer afford.
This time around, the system's smallest students are being asked to sacrifice: To save $16 million, the district has proposed cutting 4,000 preschool slots at 138 elementary schools.
In a district with a $7.3-billion budget and high-schoolers who can't read, that seems penny-wise and pound-foolish to me.
Educators, economists, social scientists and even politicians agree that a quality early learning program is the best way to prepare low-income children to succeed. It's particularly important in a district like Los Angeles, where one in three students begins school speaking little or no English.
Teachers, parents and education activists have been lobbying against the preschool cuts. Earlier this month, they packed an L.A. Unified school board committee hearing, begging for a reprieve.
"We're not fighting for our jobs," said Silvia Leon, who has been teaching 4-year-olds at Montara Elementary for 26 years. "We'll bump teachers from [other] classes. We have a lot of seniority.
"We're doing this for our children and their families."
Proud fathers and worried mothers backed her up with testimonies of shy children who learned to make friends and rambunctious youngsters who now choose books over toys or TV.
"My daughter is on the honor roll," one father said. "I can tell you she's going to get a college scholarship, right now."
His daughter is in kindergarten right now.
Joanna Ramirez has a daughter "at the top of the class" in kindergarten, and a 4-year-old son who is making strides she can hardly believe. He has social delays, she said, but is growing more comfortable and confident in preschool every day.
"Without this program, my son wouldn't be where he is," she said, wiping away tears. "Thank you for helping me teach my son what he is capable of."
It's not surprising that even with increases in school funding, officials are hunting for cuts in L.A. Unified.
The district's enrollment revenue is shrinking as families flee to charter schools. A new state funding formula requires that more money goes to high-need campuses. Boondoggles such as the iPad project and a problem-plagued scheduling system have wasted millions of dollars.
And with kindergarten-through-12th grade programs in recession-recovery mode, the obvious places to trim are on the academic margins. Adult ed survived, but was severely diminished. Now the knife is aimed at preschool. The board has the final say and it may not decide until June.
The proposed cuts would spare some early education options. About a dozen campuses host preschool classes sponsored by a local nonprofit; others offer programs funded with state and federal grants. They collectively serve about 15,000 children, but most have waiting lists.
In a region where more than 80,000 unschooled 4-year-olds could use a head start, the cut would be "an astonishing move for an educational institution," said Kim Pattillo Brownson, a member of the district's early education advisory committee.
The specific program targeted for cuts was once hailed as a national model of early education done right.
It was created in 1979 as part of a court-ordered plan to decrease the "harms of segregation" in Los Angeles schools by preparing racially isolated black and Latino children to compete with their white peers.
Even its name — School Readiness and Language Development Program — suggested high-minded ambition. It relied on credentialed teachers, focused on language and cognitive skills and taught low-income parents how to help their children succeed. Studies found that its young students outperformed others at least through fourth grade.
The district has been chipping away at that plan for years: cutting back on teacher training, closing hundreds of classrooms and eliminating the parenting classes that set the effort apart. Officials haven't bothered to assess its impact since 1996.
That makes it easy to dismantle the program, but that doesn't make it right.
"They're going in the wrong direction," said Sandra Gutierrez, who runs Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors, a heralded education program developed by and for Latino parents of young children.
"Losing this would be a huge historic step backward," she said. "It defies logic to be doing the opposite of what research tells us is best for these children and their parents."
What the research tells us is that generic preschool programs aren't enough to level the playing field for Latino children, who enter kindergarten lagging behind others in language and cognitive skills in part because of cultural differences in parenting styles.
A recent UC Berkeley study found that the parents of white toddlers tend to read to them more, praise their skills, ask more questions and engage in discussion more often than Mexican American parents.
Those are all tactics that can be taught. And as Gutierrez's classes have shown, once parents know how much influence they can have on their children's success, they are engaged and eager students.
"We miss working with the parents," Leon said. "Once they come in and feel comfortable, they learn things from us and from one another: how to play with a preschooler, how to read to them at night, how to turn cooking a meal into [a lesson in] science or math for a curious child."
Many of those parents went on to become leaders in their children's schools. And many of those children finished high school and went on to college.
"I don't understand," Leon said, "why there isn't anyone advocating for us. Why they're trying to find all these ways to cut us."
Instead of gutting the program, district officials ought to be looking for creative ways to grow it and restore those parenting sessions. That's a budget item bound to pay lifelong dividends.