There finally appears to be some agreement in Sacramento about funding for transitional kindergarten, but whether schools implement it this fall is still a big question.
The new grade – labeled the first year of a two-year kindergarten program – is supposed to be offered across the state this fall for children who no longer meet new cut-off dates for kindergarten. But many school districts put their programs on hold last month, when Gov. Jerry Brown proposed cutting transitional kindergarten in his budget.
Last week, Brown introduced budget trailer language [PDF] that would allow school districts to decide for themselves whether to offer the program, with full state funding. Parents and schools would use a special waiver to enroll students into kindergarten before their 5th birthday.
While that proposal still would need to be approved by the Legislature, the administration now appears to be in agreement with advocates of transitional kindergarten, who say the program was passed as law and has secure funding.
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That means, depending on the Legislature’s actions, schools would either be required to offer transitional kindergarten this fall, or have a choice. Either way, they would receive funding for the program.
Sen. Joseph Simitian, D-Palo Alto, who wrote the transitional kindergarten legislation, says it’s unfortunate that the governor’s actions have prompted confusion and anxiety among parents and school officials. He urges parents to push their local school officials to follow the law and offer the program this fall.
“Transitional kindergarten is law, and the funding is in place,” Simitian said. “Parents ought to be on the phone with their local school board members and superintendents, asking them, ‘How can you possibly say you won’t offer the program?’ ”
But several districts contacted, including the San Diego Unified and Los Angeles Unified school districts, say they are still unclear about whether their programs will be funded and haven’t decided what to offer in the fall.
“We’re still waiting to see what the direction of the state is,” Nora Armenta, executive director of early childhood education at LA Unified, said this week. “We’re hoping to have a decision made by the board and superintendent by the end of the month.”
The confusion over the funding has left parents with fewer options. Many must make decisions about their children’s schooling now to secure spots in programs in the fall.
Woodland Hills mom Sharmila Singh said she decided to pay to enroll her 4-year-old son in a preschool, rather than wait and see if his school in the LA Unified district would provide transitional kindergarten.
“I’m very uneasy about the whole thing,” Singh said. “At this point, I don’t trust anything that the state or LA Unified does. They’re making such drastic cuts, even to their existing programs. If they were to offer it in September, I’d be hesitant to put my son in the program, because who knows what’s going to happen a couple months in.”
Many teachers who had been excited about the prospect of creating a transitional kindergarten program are now anxious and frustrated, fearing they won’t be able to pull it off at the 11th hour. Debra Weller, a kindergarten teacher in the Capistrano Unified School District, spent nine months developing a program that was put on hold when the funding appeared in jeopardy.
“The purpose of the law was to ease into it – to make sure we had the right staff, to get classes developmentally appropriate for 4-year-olds, to make it different from traditional kindergarten,” Weller said. “Now we’re in a quandary.”
Others districts, including the San Jose Unified School District, are moving ahead and enrolling children, but telling parents that the program will not be provided if full funding doesn’t come through.
“We decided we’d be better off continuing with our preparations, so when it came to August, we wouldn’t have to rush around last minute to put together a quality program,” said Jodi Lax, manager of San Jose Unified’s elementary curriculum and instruction.
The state Legislature created new cut-off dates under the Kindergarten Readiness Act in 2010 to bring California in line with the rest of the country. The entry date for kindergarten will move one month earlier each year for the next three years. Children must turn 5 by Nov. 1 to enter traditional kindergarten this fall.
Preschool California, an advocate for transitional kindergarten, reports that more than 70 districts [PDF] in the state are moving ahead with plans to offer the program this fall. Transitional kindergarten is designed to be cost-neutral, at least initially. The savings generated by the smaller kindergarten classes would pay for the new transitional kindergarten classes.
It’s unclear exactly how much the state would save if districts were to implement the program at their choice. The governor initially proposed that it would save the state $224 million in the first year if the program were cut, but H.D. Palmer, a state Finance Department spokesman, said he’s not sure how much that figure would drop if the program became optional.