by Marsha Sutton
No waivers, no exceptions. Every elementary school district in California must offer a “Transitional Kindergarten” program this fall for students turning 5 years old between Nov. 2 and Dec. 2 of 2012.
Districts have had two years to adjust to the requirements. In 2010, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the Kindergarten Readiness Act, authored by state senator Joe Simitian, which moved the date children must turn 5 to start kindergarten from Dec. 2 to Sept. 1.
The move is gradual. This year, kindergartners must turn 5 by Nov. 2, next year by Oct. 2, and in 2014 by Sept. 1.
To better prepare young kindergartners, the law also mandates transitional kindergarten – this year for those 5-year-olds with birthdays in Nov., next year for 5-year-olds with birthdays in Oct. and Nov., and in 2014 and thereafter for students turning 5 in Sept., Oct. and Nov.
According to Simitian, the TK legislation “build[s] a bridge between early learning and kindergarten using a modified kindergarten curriculum that is age and developmentally appropriate.” Many experts cite research indicating that beginning school at an older age improves children’s social and academic development.
Simitian estimated that the money saved annually to move the date back would be about $700 million, all of which would go toward paying for TK. Because funding that would have been used to support young 5-year-olds in kindergarten is redirected to support those same children in TK, more children are not added to a school and the total number of children served remains the same. At least in theory.
“It will get kids off to a strong start at no additional cost to the state,” said Simitian in a press release.
But late last year, Gov. Jerry Brown attempted to undermine the law by eliminating the requirement for TK while keeping the Sept. 1 date. Brown hoped to take the money the state would pay to districts for TK and use it instead to help plug the state’s budget gap.
Districts put their plans for TK on hold, waiting to see how the power play would unfold in Sacramento.
Brown lost. In March 2012, the assembly soundly rejected Brown’s plan, the senate education budget subcommittee agreed, and the effort died.
Simitian called Brown’s move “the worst kind of bait and switch” and said, “This is why people don’t trust the government.”
Most school districts restarted their earlier efforts to implement TK, but watched closely as some districts asked for waivers. All waivers were denied in June.
For all three local elementary school districts – Del Mar, Solana Beach and Rancho Santa Fe – the 2012-2013 school year, including TK, begins Monday, Aug. 27.
Early on, all three were prepared to offer TK, per state law, but could hardly be said to embrace the concept. The hesitation was the cost – as well as the class size.
Because these three districts are Basic Aid and are funded primarily by local property taxes rather than paid by the state based on the average daily attendance of students (the way most other school districts are funded), they will receive no extra money from Sacramento to pay for TK. This makes transitional kindergarten for Basic Aid districts an unfunded mandate.
TK was primarily designed to help children from low-income families for whom kindergarten may be their first educational experience.
For struggling families that cannot afford a fee-based preschool program, children with fall birthdays often enter kindergarten younger than their classmates and less prepared emotionally, socially and academically. TK provides a way for these “young fives” to prepare for kindergarten which has become more rigorous over the years.
But for Basic Aid districts which generally have a higher proportion of families that send their young children to two, three and even four years of preschool before entering kindergarten, TK is superfluous.
On the other hand, because TK offers a free alternative to another year of preschool for kids with fall birthdays, TK could represent an increase in the number of students Basic Aid districts serve, contradicting one of Simitian’s foundational claims and confounding enrollment predictions.
It makes even less sense to demand that tiny school districts offer a TK program when, for example, a district like Rancho Santa Fe with only 39 kindergartners, might have an average of three or four students in a TK class.
In a bind
The three local elementary districts approached TK differently, but all somewhat reluctantly.
First to prepare for the new grade level in earnest, back in April, was the Solana Beach School District. SBSD superintendent Nancy Lynch said the district distributed notices to local community newspapers in June and July announcing the availability of a TK class for Solana Beach families, and information has been available for months on the district’s Web site: https://sbsd.schoolwires.net/Page/837.
In addition, Lynch said SBSD communicated TK information through school newsletters, school secretaries, the schools’ parent-teacher groups, and the Solana Beach Foundation for Learning leadership.
The Solana Beach TK class, which currently has 18 students, will be offered at Solana Vista School in Solana Beach and is on the same schedule as the district’s kindergarten classes, which run from 8:30 a. m. to 2:45 p.m. daily.
Lynch said the TK program for SBSD will cost about $3,900 – mostly for furniture and curriculum. No additional teacher was hired for TK, she said, “since the students who turn 5 in November are now in TK rather than kindergarten.”
Last school year, according to a story on TK published in this newspaper on March 22, 2012, the district had 382 kindergartners, with 17 who turned 6 in November and 13 who turned 5 in November.
In the same story, Rancho Santa Fe School District superintendent Lindy Delaney said that most years the district’s kindergarten classes have no students who turn 5 in November.
“Traditionally, most of our families with a child having a November birthday voluntarily hold their children back a year,” she said.
Delaney said she has had no inquiries about TK for this fall.
“If we had had a student qualify for TK, we would have discussed different possibilities and of course we would abide by the law,” she said in an email. Delaney added that the district currently has only 39 kindergarten students enrolled.
The Del Mar Union School District, even as late as two weeks ago, was not offering TK.
“At this time, DMUSD does not plan to offer transitional kindergarten for the 2012-13 school year,” read the DMUSD Web site through the first half of August. The district was, however, offering a fee-based “Pre-K Plus” program.
Last week, however, the Web site message [https://www.dmusd.org/Page/1217] was changed to read as follows: “If you have a child with a birth date falling between November 2, 2007 and December 2, 2007, and are interested in hearing information about transitional kindergarten, please email [the district].”
DMUSD superintendent Holly McClurg said two weeks ago that the district will comply with the requirement to provide TK but is “attempting to determine the most fiscally responsible way to do so.” She indicated a full TK program could cost the district more than $100,000.
“We have been intentionally non-committal due to the fiscal implications,” she said at the time, insisting that the district is prepared to offer a TK program and will be ready should it be required, “although the timeline is short.”
McClurg said she had hoped exceptions or waivers would be granted, telling the school board, according to the minutes of DMUSD’s July 25 board meeting, “The direction from Sacramento has changed drastically in recent days.”
But nothing changed and no news altering the legislation was released.
Transitional kindergarten is now being officially offered in Del Mar, even though as of press time, no notices were distributed in the local media to alert parents new to the district.
“We actively solicited information regarding students with November birthdays last spring at school sites and have been receiving information from parents and keeping a list at the district office throughout the summer,” McClurg wrote in an email.
As of the July 25 board meeting, fewer than 10 children were interested in TK, McClurg said.
DMUSD’s TK program, exclusively for students who turn 5 this year between Nov. 2 and Dec. 2, will be located at Torrey Hills School and will be a combination TK/kindergarten class. McClurg said the TK curriculum will be differentiated from the kindergarten curriculum, but the hours will be the same: 8 a.m. to 12:40 p.m.
In this newspaper’s TK story last March, McClurg said the district had about 600 kindergartners in the 2011-2012 school year.
Local districts will not receive money from the state for TK, because Basic Aid districts are not funded on a per-pupil formula like the other 90 percent of the state’s school districts are.
Furthermore, for school districts with kids in grades kindergarten though sixth, Lynch pointed out that the additional fiscal impact of the new transitional kindergarten program is that “the district will now serve students in our schools for eight years rather than seven years as we have previously.”
Lynch’s point is well-taken. Transitional kindergarten adds another year of schooling that elementary districts must provide.
Complicating the issue is that kindergarten is not required in California, which makes the mandate to provide TK rather odd.
The TK one-size-fits-all recipe doesn’t work for locally funded Basic Aid districts, because TK was designed to help those children who enter kindergarten with no preschool to prepare them – a rarity locally.
Although most parents in local districts don’t need TK, districts must offer it. It’s a great deal for parents of “fall babies.” But it’s a myth that it’s break-even – or that it’s right for every district.
Nevertheless, school districts have a duty to actively alert parents of potential TK students that a free transitional kindergarten program through their local school district is now available – no matter how illogical it may be for small, locally funded districts.
A good law for the right reasons works for some districts, but unintended consequences make this mandate a costly burden for others.
— Marsha Sutton can be reached at SuttComm@san.rr.com.