Transitional kindergarten's fate in California is still up in the air

02.03.2012 | Sacramento Bee | Diana Lambert

Sherry Tam doesn't know where her son will go to school next year.

The Elk Grove boy, who is 15 days too young to start kindergarten in August, was signed up for transitional kindergarten, a new grade level slated to start in the next school year.

But Gov. Jerry Brown pulled the multicolored classroom carpet out from under thousands of California families when he proposed permanently eliminating funding for the program in next year's state budget.

The move would save the state $223.7 million in 2012-13 and $672 million each year after the new age requirements are fully implemented in 2014-15.

Transitional kindergarten was meant to accommodate thousands of California children being pushed out of kindergarten by a new state law that requires new students to be age 5 by Nov. 1, instead of Dec. 2. It would give kids an extra year of kindergarten to better prepare them for school.

"I'm really disappointed," Tam said. Her son "will probably have to stay with his grandparents. I don't know how many other parents would have that option."

Parents such as Tam are unsure what to do. Should they cross their fingers and hope the Legislature decides to fund the program or start looking for a preschool or day care for their children?

"People are understandably anxious," said Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, author of the law that created transitional kindergarten. "I reassure them it (cutting transitional kindergarten) is only a proposal. That is all it is."

A proposed trailer bill, meant to offer details about the governor's proposal, was released Wednesday. It would allow schools to enroll 4-year-olds in kindergarten classes if the child turns 5 during the school year and meets all district requirements, similar to waivers that were in place for years.

H.D. Palmer, Finance Department spokesman, said the state would continue to pay for students waived into kindergarten.

Simitian doesn't expect legislators to agree with cutting transitional kindergarten, and he recommends that school districts continue to plan for the new grade level.

A number of school districts, however, indicated to Finance Department officials that they couldn't afford to put transitional kindergarten programs in place next year.

Most Sacramento-area districts say they are moving ahead with transitional kindergarten planning, although they also are looking for alternatives in case the program is eliminated. Some districts have spent the last year developing curriculum and staffing.

"Elk Grove is planning on moving forward as if the funding is going to be there," said Bob Roe, director of elementary education for the district. He said Elk Grove is planning 13 transitional kindergarten classes.

Many districts are considering expanding existing pre-K programs to accommodate students if transitional kindergarten is eliminated. Officials at both Twin Rivers Unified and San Juan Unified say they may start their half-year programs a month or two earlier in order to accommodate the impacted students.

Sacramento City Unified – the only local district already offering transitional kindergarten – will continue the five classes it began in 2010 but won't expand next school year as originally planned, said district Superintendent Jonathan Raymond.

"The program is being well received by our parents," Raymond said. "We think it's a no-brainer. I personally think it's the most innovative thing California has done in the last 10 years."

The superintendent is hopeful that legislators will support the new grade level. "I think it's going to happen, and it's coming quickly," he said. "We've got to have something for these children and their families. It makes good sense to move forward."

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