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Push is on to get San Diego area schools to offer transitional kindergarten

Allison Trent poses for photos with her daughter Olivia Trent.
Allison Trent poses for photos with her daughter Olivia Trent, 2, at at their home on Friday, June 11, 2021 in San Diego, CA. Allison is a parent who is advocating for Transitional Kindergarten.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Five suburban San Diego districts say they don’t have to offer it; state officials disagree

Efforts by state leaders to make transitional kindergarten available to all of California’s 4-year-olds has raised a question that is pitting some San Diego parents against their school districts.

Are all districts required to offer transitional kindergarten?

Five small, elementary-only school districts located in some of the wealthiest parts of San Diego County are part of a minority of California districts that do not provide any transitional kindergarten, even though the state education department says the law requires it for students who are currently age-eligible.

The five districts are Cardiff, Del Mar, Encinitas, Rancho Santa Fe and Solana Beach. Their officials say they disagree with the state department’s interpretation of the law. They also say they can’t afford transitional kindergarten because, unlike other San Diego County districts, they don’t get any state money to pay for it.

Some parents worry that even if universal transitional kindergarten becomes a reality this year, these districts won’t offer it.

“Nobody really seems to want to state the obvious, which is, the right thing to do is to provide TK,” said Lynnette Jaiswal, a parent in the Solana Beach district with a son who, under current law, would qualify for transitional kindergarten this fall. “I feel our school district is failing to provide a service that they should be providing.”

Transitional kindergarten is an extra year of education before kindergarten, meant to help kids prepare for school.

A 2017 study found that children who take transitional kindergarten arrive at kindergarten better prepared in reading and math than their peers who didn’t take it. Transitional kindergarten also means a year of free child care for parents.

But only a fraction of children are eligible for it.

Current state law says transitional kindergarten must be available for children who turn 5 between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2, a rule that some say is arbitrary and inequitable because it leaves out kids born at other times of the year who want or need it.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed state budget and Assembly Bill 22, authored by Assembly member Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, would make transitional kindergarten open to all 4-year-olds.

It’s unclear, though, how these proposed changes would roll out in the San Diego districts that refuse to offer transitional kindergarten.

Leaders of the Cardiff, Del Mar, Encinitas, Rancho Santa Fe and Solana Beach districts have said they don’t have to provide transitional kindergarten because they don’t get their main funding from the state, but rather from local property taxes.

Such districts are often referred to as “basic aid” districts. Basic aid districts opt to use local tax funding because they get more money per student with local taxes than they would through the state’s funding formula, which allocates schools a set amount per student.

Officials from the five districts also argue they are exempt from the state law that mandates transitional kindergarten because the law says the program is required in order to receive state funding for the program — which wouldn’t apply to them because they don’t receive general state funding.

The California Department of Education, which implements state law, has for years said the law requires all school districts to offer transitional kindergarten to age-eligible students, regardless of how those districts are funded. A department spokesman recently confirmed the department’s position in an email.

The superintendents of Cardiff, Del Mar, Encinitas, Rancho Santa Fe and Solana Beach responded to requests for comment from The San Diego Union-Tribune with a joint statement:

“While the California Department of Education oversees the public school system, it does not set the statute or laws for schools. The California Education Code is the set of laws governing California school districts and it states that Transitional Kindergarten shall be provided as a condition of receipt of apportionment. Our districts do not receive apportionment and therefore, are not required to offer a Transitional Kindergarten program.”

They added that offering transitional kindergarten would have “a significant fiscal impact” on their K-6 programs.

Kali Kim, president of the Rancho Santa Fe School Board, said in an interview that in the two years she has been a school board member, no parent has ever told her they wanted transitional kindergarten.

“We’ve been overwhelmed with balancing the budget and reopening the schools, so those have been our priorities,” Kim said.

Parents who want these districts to provide transitional kindergarten said there is no incentive for basic aid districts to provide the program because they do not get more money for enrolling more students, like state-funded districts do. Basic aid districts also are not penalized for not offering the program, they added.

“There are no consequences for not abiding by it,” Jaiswal said. “What is the incentive for them to offer TK?”

Assembly member McCarty, author of AB 22, said in an interview he doesn’t know yet how his bill would affect basic aid districts because his bill would expand current law, and the law is unclear on whether basic aid districts have to provide transitional kindergarten. He said he is looking into the issue.

The purpose of his bill and the governor’s budget is to make transitional kindergarten free and available to all California families, regardless where they live, he said.

“Every 4-year-old in California should have access to publicly-funded transitional kindergarten, and that’s what the budget proposal is and what my bill has,” McCarty said.

Del Mar Union School District officials said in an April board meeting that transitional kindergarten would take money away from bigger priorities, such as science, technology, engineering and math programs and smaller class sizes.

They also said they don’t want to pay for a program that would benefit students born in one part of the year at the cost of educating all students in the other K-6 grade levels.

“We had to reduce our reserves and deficit spend to get through this year,” said Del Mar Board President Erica Halpern at the meeting.

“We just don’t have any choices for where we can get the money from for a massive program without state funding. The way it’s currently designed, where you’re born in September, October, November and you get an extra year, I cannot support that because I don’t think it’s right; I don’t think it’s fair.”

Del Mar board Trustee Scott Wooden added: “I would say it’s not that you don’t have the money; it’s just what your priorities are ... We could do it, but it would come at a cost.”

Some parent advocates are not convinced.

Katherine Fitzpatrick, a teacher and a Del Mar school board trustee, pointed out that many other basic aid districts offer transitional kindergarten, so San Diego’s basic aid districts should be able to do the same, she said.

“It’s been my struggle these past few years to try to find the willingness to look at our budget and find funds to offer TK,” she said. “And the majority of the board doesn’t want to do that. But just given that so many other districts are able to, I don’t see why the other (districts) can’t as well.”

Allison Trent, a San Diego parent with property in Cardiff, has been advocating for transitional kindergarten in the five districts. She said she is skeptical of the districts’ claim they can’t afford transitional kindergarten.

San Diego’s basic aid districts are relatively small, ranging from 4,900 students in the Encinitas district to 547 students in the Rancho Santa Fe district. For a district like Cardiff, which had 95 kindergarteners this year, transitional kindergarten would not add many students or classrooms, Trent said.

The five basic aid districts also receive thousands more dollars per student than other local districts, Trent said. All but Encinitas receive more general revenue per student than the average California district.

Rancho Santa Fe gets $18,613 in base revenue per student and Cardiff gets $15,108 per student, while Del Mar gets $13,303 and Solana Beach gets $14,808, according to Ed-Data.org. The typical California district receives $10,958 per student, while Encinitas gets $10,421 per student.

“You’d think the districts that have more money would do more for their students,” Trent said.

If a parent in one of the five districts wants to enroll their child in transitional kindergarten, they could pay for a private preschool or apply to transfer into a different school district that does offer transitional kindergarten and drive their child there each day, parents said.

Jaiswal said Solana Beach school officials have told her she would need to apply to transfer into San Diego Unified or Poway Unified districts for transitional kindergarten. She said they told her Solana Beach’s transitional kindergarten is “parent-sponsored.”

“The fact that their answer is go to another district ... I don’t think that’s right,” Jaiswal said.

Trent has a daughter with a September birthday who in a few years could become eligible for transitional kindergarten. Trent said she doesn’t plan to enroll her in a private preschool, because Trent’s family is a single-income household.

Even if she did enroll her in a preschool, Trent doubts she would get the same quality as a transitional kindergarten program which, unlike preschool, is taught by certified teachers.

AB 22 passed the Assembly floor on June 2 and is awaiting Senate consideration.

— Kristen Taketa is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune


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