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Plan to scrap kindergarten program spurs protest

Educators and advocates are protesting a proposal to scrap a program for kids who are no longer old enough for kindergarten.

January 13, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
California educators and childcare advocates are protesting Gov. Jerry Brown's proposal to scrap a new program for children who are no longer old enough for kindergarten.

The governor's budget plan for 2012-2013 doesn't provide funding for "transitional kindergarten," a new grade level created when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation that raised the starting age for kindergarten.

That law, signed in 2010, pushes back the date by which children must turn 5 to enter kindergarten from Dec. 2 to Sept. 1. The change will be phased in one month at a time over three years starting this fall.

The legislation established transitional kindergarten for kids who don't make the new cutoff date. The program is to be taught by credentialed teachers and tailored to children who would turn 5 in September, October and November.

An estimated 40,000 children are expected to be eligible for transitional kindergarten this fall. About 120,000 kids are expected to qualify when the law takes full effect in fall 2014.

Brown is seeking to close an estimated $9.2 billion budget deficit with a mix of temporary tax increases and spending cuts to social services and education.

The Democratic governor wants to save an estimated $224 million in 2012-13 by not requiring districts to offer transitional kindergarten. That savings would increase to $672 million in 2014-2015 when the law takes full effect.

"Given the fiscal situation the state is in, we should not embark on this type of a program expansion at this time," said H.D. Palmer, Brown's finance spokesman. "This is one of the difficult decisions that was necessary to close a budget gap of $9 billion."

But preschool advocates say the plan will shut thousands of children out of public education and create financial hardship for families that can't afford an extra year of childcare or preschool.

A coalition of California educators, preschool advocates and lawmakers are vowing to fight Brown's kindergarten proposal.

"This is a nonstarter," said Catherine Atkin, executive director of the advocacy group Preschool California. "This is not the time to move backward in providing access to public education."

State Sen. Joe Simitian, who authored the 2010 law, and preschool advocates plan to speak out against the governor's proposal Friday at the annual gathering of the California Kindergarten Association in Santa Clara.

California currently has one of the country's latest cutoff dates - about one-fourth of students are 4 years old when they start kindergarten. Most U.S. states require students to be 5 to enroll.

Raising the kindergarten age could lead to stronger academic performance, higher graduation rates and fewer students needing to repeat grades or take special ed classes, supporters say.

Many families hold their children back a year to give them more time to prepare for kindergarten, which has become more academically intensive in recent years, but that isn't an option for low-income families, Atkin said.

Parents who believe their kids are ready for kindergarten or can't afford another year of childcare can petition their districts to allow their children to start school early, said Susan Burr, executive director of the state Board of Education.

The proposal to eliminate the mandate for transitional kindergarten is part of the governor's plan to give school districts more discretion over how they spend state education funds, she said.

"These decisions are best made at the local level," said Burr, who serves as Brown's education policy advisor.