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Transitional kindergarten supporters find new hope

A transitional kindergarten class in Long Beach serves kids who are about to turn five-years-old at the beginning of the school years. Governor Jerry Brown proposed cutting funding for the classes to start in the fall.
A transitional kindergarten class in Long Beach serves kids who are about to turn five-years-old at the beginning of the school years. Governor Jerry Brown proposed cutting funding for the classes to start in the fall.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

The California Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Subcommittee on Education voted today to reject the governor's proposal to eliminate transitional kindergarten in his budget.

The party-line vote — with Democrats rejecting the governor's plan and Republicans against or absent — matches a March 13 vote by the state Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Education Finance. Gov. Jerry Brown's 2012 budget proposes to save the state $224 million by pulling the plug on the new program that begins this year. Such a change, however, would require the Legislature action to change the current statute.

"It's good news for California kids, families and schools," said Democratic Sen. Joe Simitian, of Palo Alto, who authored the Kindergarten Readiness Act, which provides for the program. "...Unfortunately, I think the proposal has created a lot of anxiety and uncertainty around the state."

In 2010, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law the Act, which works to ensure California's kindergarten entry date aligns with new development data and the cut offs in most other states across the country.

Since 1951, California has had its kindergarten cut-off date set at Dec. 2. (Only Michigan Vermont and Connecticut allow children into school as late as Dec. 1; a handful of other states do not specify the cut-off date in statute, but those districts typically line the date up with the first day of school.) If your kids are 5 years old after that date, they enter kindergarten a year later.

Under the new law, the date is moved forward to Sept. 1 gradually over three years. This year the cut-off will be Nov. 1. Next year it will Oct. 1. And in 2013, the cut-off will be Sept. 1. The roughly 125,000 children born each year between Sept. 1 and Dec. 2 would instead be sent to a "transitional kindergarten" class structured to be more developmentally appropriate before entering traditional kindergarten the following year.

The law was written so that the cost savings of roughly $5,740 the state pays out per child for attendance would instead pay for their transitional kindergarten class. And because the law is phased in and results in smaller classes, the program offsets its own costs for 15 years.

Supporters of the program say keeping 125,000 kids in school prevents ripple effects on teacher staffing and parents' work schedules that would result from simply leaving the kids out of school for an additional year.

The governor's budget proposal anticipates a cost savings of nearly $224 million n 2012 by cutting the transitional kindergarten program. The money would then be used to support the general cost of education.

But H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the governor's Department of Finance, said the governor's proposed cut is necessary during tough economic times. Republicans have also expressed concern over beginning a new program when existing fiscal needs can't be met.

"At this particular time, when we're dealing with the state's overall fiscal challenges, now is not the time to implement a brand new program with the attendant costs associated with it," Palmer said. He said the governor's office has heard anecdotally that a number of districts were concerned about the details of accommodating a new program.

California allows parents to request a school board allow their child early admission to kindergarten before age 5. Children who have completed kindergarten are automatically eligible for first grade unless their parent requests the child remain in kindergarten for an additional year.

Meanwhile, LAUSD and other districts have already begun pilot programs in preparation for the law's implementation this year; the expansion of the program is on hold because of the governor's proposal.

Simitian said he found it "a very good sign" that both houses' subcomittees had decided to reject the proposal, but also said anything can happen.

"In budget lore there's an old phrase," Simitian said. "A governor proposes, the Legislature disposes."

Tami Abdollah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@latams).