By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Lisl Christie and student Erika Mitchell play with a puppet at San Miguel Elementary in Santa Rosa.
Disappointed that the state is reneging on plans to move forward with statewide transitional kindergarten, CTA will “push back” against the governor’s proposal to make it voluntary instead of mandatory, says CTA President Dean Vogel.
In 2010, the Legislature passed a law, SB 1381 by state Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), that raises the kindergarten entry age. Until now, children have been required to reach their fifth birthday by Dec. 2 of the current school year. The bill shifts the cutoff date to Sept. 1 in stages over a three-year period beginning this fall. The bill also creates a “transitional kindergarten” (TK) program for children who will no longer be eligible for kindergarten under the change, to be followed by a year of regular kindergarten.
Under the budget proposed by Gov. Brown, the mandate for TK will be eliminated, and the funding will be withheld as a cost savings of $223 million. There have been indications that some funding may be available for districts that proceed with TK. Not until the budget is approved sometime later this year will the precise status of TK funding for the 2012-13 school year be clear. Presently, the state provides ADA funding for most districts with existing TK programs for 4-year-olds.
Under Brown’s proposal, districts could enroll children who are still age 4 in November in regular kindergarten if they are granted a “waiver” establishing school readiness, but thousands would still be denied access to public schools if they are not granted a waiver or if their school district chooses not to offer transitional kindergarten.
Studies show TK may be beneficial to closing the achievement gap, notes EdSource, since children who start school later demonstrate better math and reading skills by first grade. A RAND Corp. research report concludes that delaying kindergarten has a positive effect on test score gains in early years.
“We were very excited about TK being mandated, because we were the ones that kept pushing for a change in the kindergarten age,” says Vogel. “Something had to happen to accommodate students who wouldn’t be allowed to start school, and having a place for them in transitional kindergarten was perfect. But the governor’s budget seems to be threatening TK, and we’re certainly going to push back on that. The governor is not putting these conditions on TK because it’s the right thing to do. It’s really about figuring out how to manage limited resources.”
What is the cost?
The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates the state would save $700 million each year that it would have normally spent on kindergarten classes that include 4-year-olds. However, if TK classes were mandated, there would be no immediate cost to taxpayers, since funds used now to pay for 4-year-olds in kindergarten would simply be redirected. However, there would be a cost in 13 years, because the state would eventually pay for an additional year of public schooling for students enrolled in a two-year kindergarten.
Preschool California asserts that schools could lose $1 billion in ADA funding by eliminating TK, and that having TK statewide could actually save money by reducing the number of children who end up in more expensive special education classes or repeating grades.
“In the long run, there will be significant cost savings to the state,” asserts Preschool California. “Children will be better prepared to succeed in kindergarten and beyond. California’s economy will be strengthened by a well-educated, globally competitive workforce.”
Then there’s the emotional cost of pushing youngsters beyond their readiness levels, which can be damaging to students and teachers, says CTA Board member George Melendez, a longtime kindergarten teacher in Palmdale.
“You have kindergarten teachers teaching students reading, writing and math, when kids come in unable to hold a pencil, use scissors or know their letters or numbers,” he says. “Transitional kindergarten is more developmentally appropriate for many kids who really need to learn how to sit down, listen, develop self-control and become ready for kindergarten, so they can be successful.”
Some children go to kindergarten before they are ready, especially in low-income households, because parents can’t afford preschool. Then teachers face the dilemma of holding students back and having them feel like failures, or passing them along to the next grade level where they may fall even further behind.
“I really hope the state decides to mandate transitional kindergarten,” says Melendez. “I think it’s a wonderful idea.”
Ruthie Fagerstrom, chair of CTA’s Early Childhood Education Committee, believes TK would level the playing field for low-income youngsters, since only about half of California children eligible for publicly subsidized preschool programs are enrolled. As a second- and third-grade intervention teacher at Stanton Elementary School in Glendora, she sees firsthand problems that youngsters encounter when they go into kindergarten without being ready.
“These are children that are recommended for retention; these children have a lot of interventions and they may be referred to other types of programs the school may offer,” says Fagerstrom, vice president of the Glendora Teachers Association. “You can’t rush maturity. But you can fill in some holes that may be there by providing more building blocks and basics that are really important with a child’s ability to perform in school.”
Districts are uncertain
When legislation passed making TK mandatory, many districts put a great deal of effort into planning its implementation and curriculum. Now that it may be voluntary, many districts are rethinking their plans for TK — or canceling it.
Officials of 12 of the state’s largest districts, contacted by EdSource, indicated a wide range of responses to the TK flip-flop. According to Preschool California, more than 100 school districts have started TK pilot programs on their own, or plan to launch them in the fall regardless of the governor’s budget proposal. Some are taking a “wait and see” attitude, including Lodi, Mount Diablo Unified and Capistrano Unified. Others canceled plans for TK outright, including San Francisco, Anaheim City and Garden Grove, says EdSource, which predicts most districts will probably not have a program this fall if the governor’s plan is approved by lawmakers.
Sen. Simitian has charged that this inconsistency will create “unequal access” to children in California because TK will be available for some children but not for all, which could impact the future success of low-income students.
“Education cuts at any level are foolish in a state in which schools are already starving,” writes Deborah Stipek, a former dean and professor at Stanford University’s School of Education, in an article for the San Jose Mercury. “While we need to balance California’s budget, we also need to avoid cuts that will severely cost the state in the long run. Cutting funding for transitional kindergarten, as the governor proposes, may do just that.”
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