Katherine Fitzpatrick gestures at her serene 17-month-old tinkering with Legos on the kitchen floor.
“He’s the one that got me started,” she said.
His name is Owen and he got her started on a sprawling investigation that lead her to me, reporters at the San Diego Union-Tribune and Del Mar Times, lawmakers, lawyers and the dais at her local school board meeting.
Essentially, Fitzpatrick and Owen won the early education lottery and then had their winnings taken away. She wanted to know why.
In California, when you have a baby between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2, not only do you take home a bundle of joy, you take home thousands of dollars in future childcare savings. At age four, kids born in that window are eligible for a free, extra year of public schooling called transitional kindergarten, or TK. Owen was born Sept. 7.
“So I called our school district and asked about where TK is hosted and they said they don’t have the program anymore. They had gotten rid of it in 2015,” Fitzpatrick said.
Her district is Del Mar Union. It discontinued TK because, whereas most districts get help paying for state-mandated programs, Del Mar doesn’t. It’s one of the privileged few districts in California that bring in so much property tax revenue, the state asks them to fend for themselves.
They’re called “basic aid” or “excess tax” districts and there were 224 of them in 2011, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. The Encinitas Union and Rancho Santa Fe districts are also in this boat and don’t offer TK.
The law characterizes the requirement “as a condition of receipt of apportionment.” Since basic aid districts don’t receive the typical apportionment for each child they enroll — called “average daily attendance” — the districts believe they don’t have to offer TK.
“We met the intent of the law and that was always what our priority was,” said Del Mar Superintendent Holly McClurg of offering TK prior to 2015.
The program evolved out of a bill to phase in new age requirements for kindergarten over four years. McClurg said after the fourth year, it didn’t make sense to continue offering TK to a small group of students because of their birth dates.
“These funds would only be used for a quarter of students, and we believe they’re better used for one full year for all students,” she said.
McClurg communicated that to Fitzpatrick, but Fitzpatrick couldn’t shake one thing.
The California Department of Education and the bill’s author, former Sen. Joe Simitian, say every district is required to provide TK, no matter how they’re funded.
The CDE website states: “The laws apply equally to all districts, whether they receive State revenue limit funding or are basic aid.”
In a 2013 article about a Menlo Park parent who encountered the same problem, Simitian says parents should “persuade their board to provide the program that every other district in the state is providing, or they can litigate, or they can ask the state Legislature to reconfirm the fact that TK is a requirement."
Fitzpatrick started an online petition to do the latter. And she’s contacted her lawmakers in Sacramento, Assemblyman Todd Gloria and Sen. Toni Atkins, about the matter. She’s had two — now three — news stories written about it. She spoke with law experts at Stanford and UC Berkeley. She gave public comment at a school board meeting.
“I guess maybe there was a point in my mind where you just read this information, but you don’t bother connecting with anyone about it, you just take it for what it is, and you just close the chapter and leave it at that,” Fitzpatrick said. “But for whatever reason, I just wanted to hear an explanation.”
Fitzpatrick’s story is a good template for any parent, said Mary Ignatius, an organizer with the statewide nonprofit Parent Voices.
“Parents are inherent leaders. They’re the leaders of their family and their ability to multitask — I mean, just getting out of bed and fighting the day takes a tremendous amount of leadership,” Ignatius said. “It’s just trying to hold up a mirror to them and say, ‘You do this every day. You don’t have to be intimidated. And when it comes to your children, there’s no better expert than you as a parent.’”
"You start off by stating a value that nobody can disagree with. 'I believe all children deserve access to a quality, affordable education.' And then you state the problem as you see it. What are the issues that you're challenged by? Then offer a general solution and end it with an ask that that decision-making body can achieve. You have to have a tangible ask." - Mary Ignatius, Parent Voices
Ignatius said parents can and should use their lawmakers, whether it’s to advocate for something they need or to simply ask a question.
“What we’ve seen over the last 22 years is that the legislature, at whatever level of government it is, wants to hear from constituents and wants to hear from those who are directly impacted by the decisions that they make,” she said.
McClurg, the Del Mar superintendent, said she wasn’t bothered at all by Fitzpatrick’s calls.
“To be informed is the right thing to do,” McClurg said. “We are partners with parents.”
Fitzpatrick still doesn’t have a concrete explanation. Most of the people she spoke with told her the only thing that’s clear is that the law is so unclear she would likely need a judge to untangle it.
Fitzpatrick is going her own route and asking Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, to clarify the language on apportionments in a new bill aimed at expanding TK to all four-year-olds.
Even though she doesn't have the answer she's looking for, Fitzpatrick said she'd do it all again.
"It’s been an educational experience and an empowering one," she said, "because it really is just about picking up the phone and making that phone call or sending that first email."
Sen. Joel Anderson: (916) 651-4038 (map)
Sen. Toni Atkins: (916) 651-4039 (map)
Sen. Pat Bates: (916) 651-4036 (map)
Assemblyman Rocky Chávez: (916) 319-2076 (map)
Assemblyman Todd Gloria: (916) 319-2078 (map)
Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez-Fletcher: (916) 319-2080 (map)
Sen. Ben Hueso: (916) 651-4040 (map)
Assemblyman Brian Maienschein: (916) 319-2077 (map)
Assemblyman Randy Voepel: (916) 319-2071 (map)
Assemblywoman Marie Waldron: (916) 319-2075 (map)
Assemblywoman Shirley Weber: (916) 319-2079 (map)