Early Childhood

Threat to Transitional Kindergarten Roils Calif.

By Julie Rasicot — February 07, 2012 5 min read
Teacher Doris Lipiz gets to work on listening skills in the pilot transitional kindergarten class at Webster Elementary School in Long Beach, Calif.
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California Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to eliminate funding for transitional kindergarten has created a statewide storm of protest from superintendents, teachers, and preschool advocates, who are urging state lawmakers to reject the idea.

Amid claims by supporters that as many as 125,000 of the state’s youngest kindergarten-age children ultimately would be kicked out of school, advocates say the governor’s office is reconsidering its proposal to save $223 million by eliminating funding for the program, which is set to get under way next fall.

Meanwhile, more than 100 schools districts are moving ahead with plans to offer the state-mandated program in the fall, and another 20 or so are abandoning or postponing their plans because of uncertainty over state funding.

“It is a muddy picture at a very inopportune time, because school districts are enrolling students now,” said Scott Moore, a senior policy adviser for Preschool California, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Oakland that is leading a coalition of district superintendents, educators, civic leaders, and parents who support transitional kindergarten.

School officials and educators statewide have embraced transitional kindergarten, a program designed to increase readiness for children who fall short of a new cutoff age for regular kindergarten.

The extra year of instruction gives younger learners more time to get developmentally ready, proponents say. Without such a readiness program, those children are more likely to be placed in special education, need remediation, and be retained in later grades, said Debra Weller, a veteran kindergarten teacher in the 53,000-student Capistrano Unified School District and the immediate past president of the California Kindergarten Association.

As part of deficit-cutting plans, Gov. Brown, a Democrat, last month proposed eliminating transitional kindergarten.

Districts are mandated by the state’s 2010 Kindergarten Readiness Act to provide transitional kindergarten in fall 2012. The law also rolls back the cutoff date by which children must be 5 to enter kindergarten to Sept. 1, from Dec. 2. Transitional kindergarten would provide an additional year of instruction to help children who would turn 5 during that three-month period get ready for regular kindergarten.

The new cutoff age will be phased in over three years, moving to Nov. 1 this year. That means that Gov. Brown’s proposal would affect about 40,000 children eligible for transitional kindergarten next school year and a total of about 125,000 when the law is fully implemented in 2014, said state Sen. Joseph Simitian, who wrote the readiness law.

The governor’s office had not provided a comment about his proposal as of deadline last week, but referred a reporter to the education department’s website, which states that the department and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson “fully support the transitional kindergarten program. Unless current law changes, the [department] continues to move forward with the transitional kindergarten implementation plan for the 2012-13 school year.”

Defending the Program

Mr. Simitian, a Democrat, is among those who have cried foul over the governor’s plan. He argues that transitional kindergarten is “one of those rare items that are genuinely no-cost items,” because districts would fund it with state money they’d normally receive for those kindergartners who would now be in the transitional program, instead of the regular classes.

Eliminating the program would not only leave the younger children without a place to go, according to Mr. Simitian, it would also decrease kindergarten enrollment, and the state money districts would have gotten for those younger students had they been enrolled in regular kindergarten.

But Mr. Simitian and others said that the situation was fluid and noted that Gov. Brown’s proposal was still a proposal—one of many made during budget negotiations.

The threat to transitional kindergarten has galvanized school officials and advocates, who say its elimination would leave younger learners with few options as parents scramble to find preschool or day care for next year. Families that can’t afford private preschools would be especially hard hit, advocates say, because Gov. Brown also is calling for the elimination of 71,000 slots in state-subsidized child care.

Since the law’s passage, districts have been getting ready by training teachers and developing curriculum. Some have already instituted pilot programs.

The 56,000-student San Francisco Unified School District was one of the districts with a pilot program. But the district announced Jan. 25 that it would not offer transitional kindergarten next school year because it couldn’t afford to run the program without state funding. Other districts have said they are putting plans on hold as they wait to see what the legislature does.

The 86,000-student Long Beach Unified School District, which has been running a pilot program for five years, is one of dozens of districts moving ahead with transitional-kindergarten programs.

“No matter what the state does next year, we’re going to move forward,” said Superintendent Christopher J. Steinhauser, who said the district would look into using federal funding to pay for the program. “We feel strongly that 450 students would not have a place to go, and they need an extra year of school and developmental instruction.”

Readiness Period

School officials say that providing the additional year takes on even more importance as kindergarten becomes increasingly rigorous, with instruction more closely aligned with what students used to learn in 1st grade.

Mr. Steinhauser said that at Long Beach schools, teachers in upper grades “can tell who went through the transition program,” he said.

Ms. Weller, the Capistrano Unified teacher, said that kindergarten teachers have long believed that allowing children with fall birthdays into kindergarten is “extremely harmful” because “developmentally they would be forced into a curriculum two years beyond their grasp.”

The transitional program would provide those children with instruction that would get them ready for kindergarten, she said.

Eliminating the program not only would hamper those younger learners, she said; children from low-income families that can’t afford preschool as well as those from non-English-speaking households would be further disadvantaged.

“We’re setting up a have- and have-not situation,” said Ms. Weller.

A version of this article appeared in the February 08, 2012 edition of Education Week as Threat to Transitional Kindergarten Roils Calif.


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