Calif. Budget Proposal Would Kill 'Transitional Kindergarten'

01.17.2012 | Early Ed Watch | Linda Jacobson

Today we feature a guest post from Linda Jacobson, veteran education reporter and author of the policy paper, On the Cusp in California.

Just as school districts across California have started to phase in the state’s new “transitional kindergarten” for 4- and 5-year-olds, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) is proposing to eliminate funding for the classes, saying now is not the time for “program expansions.”

Early learning advocates, however, have reacted strongly, saying that the reversal is breaking a promise that the state made to families when the Kindergarten Readiness Act passed in 2010. The law changed the age of eligibility so that children will be older when they start kindergarten and created “transitional kindergarten,” known as TK.  The program was designed to serve children who would be newly labeled as too young for kindergarten but unlikely to have access to pre-K programs to attend instead.  At the time, then-Gov. Schwarzenegger (R) called the legislation “a landmark accomplishment for early childhood developmental education in California.”

The state’s new cut-off date for admission to kindergarten will be Sept. 1 when the law is fully implemented in 2014. The change is occurring gradually, with this year’s cut-off set at Nov. 1, meaning that any child who is still 4 years old by Nov. 1st would not be able to attend regular kindergarten.

For years, California had one of the latest cut-offs in the country:  Dec. 2. Educators and early learning advocates have long said that many of those older 4-year-olds did not yet have the classroom readiness skills they needed to be successful, especially with the increasing expectations for children to develop social and academic skills by the end of the kindergarten year.  

Yet child advocates have also worried that setting a new cut-off date would leave low-income families with few options for early education for their children during the year those children turn 5.  The Kindergarten Readiness Act was able to gain supporters in part because it created a TK program to ensure that those children were not left out.

“Kicking 125,000 children out of kindergarten is a lose-lose-lose that will hurt kids and parents, and cost 5,000 teachers their jobs,” Preschool California President Catherine Atkin, said in a press release. “Without this critical year of schooling, California’s children will fall further behind, and parents who are expecting their children to enter school this fall will be forced to scramble for child care or stop working entirely – which families cannot afford.”

Governor Brown released his budget proposal  Jan. 5 and said that his budget “keeps the cuts made last year and adds new ones. The stark truth is that without some new taxes, damaging cuts to schools, universities, public safety and our courts will only increase.” California has not fully recovered from the recession. Since 2008, significant cuts in education and other department have been enacted in order to make up budget shortfalls.

Most districts have been gearing up to open TK classrooms in the fall of 2012, when the first of the new cut-off dates takes effect. But others—including the largest in the state, Los Angeles Unified — jumped out in front and began offering the program in the fall of 2010 on a voluntary basis to schools that wanted it.

In 2010-11, 36 schools in LAUSD were offering TK using state education funds. Another 78 joined this school year, bringing the current number of children in TK to around 2,000. Some of those schools have hosted visitors from other districts interested in what Los Angeles teachers and administrators have learned so far.

TK allows teachers to provide many of the features associated with well-designed pre-K and kindergarten classrooms, including “center” activities in which children form small groups and work at projects on tables or on the rug, dramatic play corners, and extra support in children’s home language for English learners.

“One of the things language learners need is vocabulary. In center time, they really get it,” Stacey Arballo, a TK teacher at Gulf Avenue Elementary in Wilmington, Calif., said in Right from the Start: Transition Strategies for Developing a Strong PreK-3 Continuum, a new report from the American Federation of Teachers.

Arballo adds that teaching TK has given her the flexibility to slow down lessons if she feels students need more time. And for those children in TK who are progressing quickly, schools have the option of recommending that they advance into 1st grade without spending another year in regular kindergarten.

Eliminating TK will save the state more than $223 million this year because fewer children will be in the school system, according to the proposed budget.

The governor’s proposal also includes $2.5 billion in cuts to health and human services, including a reduction of 62,000 child care slots for low-income families, as well as more than $300 million to the Cal Grant program, which provides financial aid for college to low-income students.

But even those figures are contingent upon voters approving income tax increases starting at 1 percent on married couples earning at least $500,000 in November. Those earning between $601,000 and $1 million would pay an extra 1.5 percent, and those couples earning over $1 million would pay an extra 2 percent. 

Supposing the tax increase passes, funding for K-12 and community colleges would increase, but much of that extra funding would be used to reimburse education funding required in the state.

If the tax increase were rejected, the cuts would be far deeper, including $4.8 billion from public schools and community colleges and $200 million each from the state’s two university systems.

The cuts to child development programs are being proposed even though the state was recently awarded one of nine Early Learning Challenge grants, which state officials plan to use to build a Quality Rating and Improvement System. Decreases in funding now, would “undercut those efforts,” said Atkin of Preschool California.  And given California’s laggard status on a few indicators in early education, some analysts are questioning how California managed to win a grant in the first place.

The governor is also calling for a new “weighted-pupil” funding formula, which would allocate funding to schools based on their needs, such as higher poverty or greater numbers of English learners.

Paul Hefner, spokesman for the California Department of Education, says that under the governor’s plan, even if schools still want to offer TK, they won’t be able to use state funding—or average daily attendance funding—to pay for it.

And even though a weighted-student formula is meant to provide “very flexible dollars for locals,” Hefner says,  those dollars would still have to be spent on K-12 students.

With funding for preschool and child care subsidies being cut, advocates say it’s unlikely that families who were counting on their children being in TK this fall will find space in asubsidized program.

Nora Armenta, the executive director for early childhood education for LAUSD, says those schools that were “early implementers” of TK are likely to feel the greatest impact if the budget plan is approved.

“The best case scenario is hopefully the legislature will let us at least keep what we have,” she said.

In an interview, Atkin called the governor's plan a "non-starter" and said Preschool California is hoping members of the legislature who have expressed opposition to cutting TK will prevail during the session. "We're confident that they will be rejecting this," she said.

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