State politics leaves young kindergartners in limbo


By Marsha Sutton

Legislation requiring public schools to offer a pre-kindergarten class this fall for “young fives” — and California Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to override the law — has given many school districts a case of whiplash with the on-again, off-again debate.

Learning last year that Brown wanted to eliminate the requirement, many districts put their plans for transitional kindergarten, or TK, on hold. But last week, California’s Assembly budget committee solidly rejected Brown’s plan to eliminate the requirement for TK and stood behind the law as written.

Transitional kindergarten is part of a larger bill known as the Kindergarten Readiness Act, which passed in 2010 and advances the date by which children must turn 5 to start kindergarten. The law, Senate Bill 1381, takes effect this fall, when the cutoff date will be Nov. 1. In 2013, the date will be Oct. 1. And in 2014, the date by which children must be 5 to enter kindergarten will be Sept. 1, where it will remain. Prior California law stated that children must turn 5 by Dec. 2 to enter kindergarten.

SB-1381, sponsored by state Sen. Joe Simitian, includes a mandate for California school districts to develop and implement a transitional kindergarten program for children with fall birthdays who will be too young to start kindergarten once the law kicks in.

According to Simitian’s office, TK will “improve the pre-first-grade preparation for those fall birthday children who would otherwise be the youngest in their class. This is especially important for low-income and English language learner children, who often receive less academic preparation. Transitional kindergarten will provide a two-year preparation for first grade while reducing the likelihood of retention after a year of traditional kindergarten.”

This year, the law requires public school districts to offer a TK program for children turning 5 in November. Next year the requirement for TK is for October and November birthdays, and the following year for September, October and November birthdays.

“When we heard about it originally, obviously we started preparing for it,” said Holly McClurg, assistant superintendent of instructional services for the Del Mar Union School District. “When we knew that the governor had eliminated TK from his proposed budget, that put things on hold for us.”

The Solana Beach School District likewise shelved its plans for TK after hearing last year that the governor was opposing it. The SBSD Web site, as of press time, states: “Currently, the Solana Beach School District has no plans to offer a transitional kindergarten program.”

However, SBSD superintendent Leslie Fausset said the district will follow the law and provide a TK program this fall if required. “There’s been confusion about whether you’re required to do it,” she said. “Clearly if we’re required, we will do it.”

Districts caught off-guard

The law mandates that the savings from having fewer children in kindergarten be used to fund a transitional kindergarten program.

But, according to a Jan. 5, 2012 bulletin from School Services of California, the governor’s proposed 2012-2013 budget did not including funding for TK. “At this time, it is not likely that the transitional kindergarten program will be funded for 2012-13,” the report concluded.

Brown’s plan keeps the rolled back dates for kindergarten entry but seeks to eliminate both the requirement for TK and the statutes passed by the legislature in 2010. Under the plan, the money saved would be provided to K-12 districts to use at their own discretion, which includes offering a TK program if that’s what they choose to do.

Operating under the assumption that the governor’s proposal would prevail, many districts were caught off-guard when on March 13 the state’s Assembly budget subcommittee on education rejected Brown’s plan to do away with TK.

“The proposal was met with considerable skepticism,” reported School Services, writing that Assembly member and education committee chair Julia Brownley, who opposed the change, said the attempt to eliminate TK “represents a ‘huge policy shift.’”

Jeff Bell is director of management consulting services for SSC, a non-profit financial, management and advocacy resource for educational agencies in California. He said in an interview that TK is “very much up in the air now.”

Bell said the chair of the assembly budget committee appeared during the subcommittee meeting to voice his opposition to the elimination of TK.

“That’s very unusual,” Bell said. “The chair of the budget committee doesn’t usually come into subcommittees and make those kinds of statements.”

The next step, he said, is the Senate education budget subcommittee meeting on April 12 where he predicted the going would be just as tough for Brown, since the original legislation authorizing TK began with Simitian who is still a state senator.

If the Senate subcommittee also rejects the proposal, as anticipated, the matter will be heard in the budget conference committee in June. If Brown still wants to eliminate TK, then he will need to present his case there and fight for his proposal, which is likely to entail compromise and negotiation, Bell said.

The vote broke along party lines, with Democrats parting ways with Brown and voting against his proposal. The majority in both the Assembly and the Senate are Democrats, as is the governor.

Unfunded mandate

According to Simitian’s SB-1381 fact sheet, the annual cost savings resulting from fewer children in kindergarten is $700 million, which is to be used to provide transitional kindergarten.

The amount of money saved each year, though, appears to be a moving target. Bell said the subcommittee referred to a savings of $120 million, while $223.7 million is the figure SSC used in its January report on TK.

The legislation is written to provide districts with funding for TK from the savings they would reap from having fewer students in kindergarten, so most districts would receive the same amount of money from the state based on attendance as before.

However, Basic Aid districts — which include Del Mar, Solana Beach and Rancho Santa Fe — are funded primarily by local property taxes rather than average daily attendance. This means, according to McClurg and Fausset, that Basic Aid districts would receive no money from the state to pay for TK, making transitional kindergarten an unfunded mandate.

Nevertheless, Del Mar and Solana Beach are planning to provide TK this fall if required, although the decision may not be handed down until just weeks before school starts.

“There continues to be a lack of clarity and confirmation from the state, so we are in a holding pattern,” McClurg said. “At the same time [we are] trying to prepare for whatever the scenario is that rolls out.”

She said the district has reviewed preliminary curriculum and the San Diego County Office of Education is working to develop a TK program. But she said there are no state standards or details on specific TK curriculum to date; districts have only been told it must be different from both preschool and kindergarten.

“We want to be sure we’re doing the right things for our children and also following the law,” McClurg said. “So there are still a lot of unanswered questions.”

TK teachers need to have a teaching credential but do not need to be specially trained. “But just as we do for any teaching assignment, we want to be sure it’s the best match for what the children’s needs are,” she said. Teachers within the district could apply for the openings, as with other positions.

Del Mar currently has about 600 kindergartners, said McClurg. The law requires districts to provide TK this year only for those children turning 5 in November, so she estimated about 50 TK students which would probably mean two classes located in different schools in the district, depending upon space availability. Children turning 5 in November could be admitted to regular kindergarten on a case-by-case basis, she said.

McClurg acknowledged that a free Del Mar TK program for November birthdays might attract children who would otherwise be enrolled in another year of preschool, making estimates based on current enrollment unreliable.

Del Mar parents, she said, have been asking about transitional kindergarten for this fall. “We want to be able to provide our parents with answers and exactly what programs will be offered and for which students,” she said. “We wish we had more answers.”

Costs for implementing a TK program are also difficult to project. McClurg said there would be costs associated with the purchase of curriculum materials, teacher salaries (because it would be an additional year of education for those students), professional development for teachers, and facilities.

“To implement TK with two classes, we estimate the cost would be approximately $195,000,” she said, with almost all the costs occurring annually except for furniture and initial curriculum start-up materials.

Bait and switch

A few years ago, Solana Beach offered a pre-kindergarten program that was discontinued due to lack of space. This program is being resurrected into a fee-based “Preschool Plus” program at SBSD’s Child Development Center for any child turning 5 between August and November who is not ready for kindergarten.

If the law is upheld as currently written, Fausset said the district would also offer one class of TK, specifically for those children turning 5 in November, at one location in the district where classroom space is available.

Solana Beach currently has 382 kindergartners, with 17 who turned 6 in November and 13 who turned 5 in November. But Fausset was skeptical that those numbers would be realistic for gauging enrollment in a TK class.

Transitional kindergarten teachers must be certificated, she said, “so we would either recruit from our kindergarten or early primary staff or hire a new teacher for this class.”

Fausset said uncertainty about the program began last fall and continued through Feb., and led her and her team to place their plans for TK on hold. “At this time we believed the program was not required,” she said. “We certainly did not want to move aggressively forward and communicate a program that might not be funded.”

Fausset is monitoring activity in Sacramento. “Clearly, we have slowed our planning but can mobilize at any moment when we have confirmation that the program is required,” she said.

She anticipates the Senate budget committee will reject the governor’s proposal, saying, “I’m going to guess there’s more legislative work to be done with this.”

Districts need to be “careful, cautious and thoughtful before embarking upon implementation of a new program in this difficult budget time,” Fausset said. At the same time, she emphasized the importance of the original legislation and the need for it.

“I am very supportive of the TK concept,” she said. “As a former first-grade teacher, I have long advocated to move the kindergarten age back.”

She said transitional kindergarten offers a chance for lower-income children to prepare for kindergarten without the risk of falling behind more affluent classmates with years of preschool. Fausset said her district “will work hard to accommodate families.”

Lindy Delaney, superintendent of the Rancho Santa Fe School District, said she is continuing to assess the situation but that her numbers are so low that most years the district has no kindergarten 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,” Delaney said in an email.

Simitian, in a Los Angeles Times article published Feb. 8, 2012, called the proposal to eliminate transitional kindergarten “the worst kind of bait and switch.”

He said the bargain was to change the kindergarten starting age while providing a TK program with the money saved. Now, he said, the governor wants to “take advantage of those savings without honoring the commitment to provide [transitional kindergarten].”

“This is why people don’t trust the government,” Simitian said.