Another strike at Transitional K

Governor Brown isn’t giving up on efforts to curtail Transitional Kindergarten (TK), despite being rebuffed by both the Senate and Assembly subcommittees dealing with education funding. The May Revision budget plan, released Monday, seeks to make TK a voluntary program and use the savings to restore proposed cuts to state-funded preschool.

The State Department of Finance estimates this plan would capture $132.2 million. Of that, however, $40.7 million would go to funding TK in the handful of districts that the department expects will continue or start a program, and to providing districts that lose students by opting out of TK with the mandatory one-time funding for declining enrollment. That leaves a net gain of $91.5 million.

“It’s robbing Peter to pay Paul,” said Deborah Kong of Preschool California, adding that the Department of Finance savings estimates are “very questionable.” Preschool California posted an interactive map on its website showing that even though about three dozen districts are holding off on implementation of TK for now, more than 200, including Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest district, have indicated that they’re moving forward.

Still the law

Transitional Kindergarten was established under SB 1381, the Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2010, introduced by State Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto). It raises the minimum age for starting kindergarten by moving up the entry date one month in each of the next three years, so by the 2014-15 school year children will have to be five years old by September 1 to enroll.

The bill also created the TK program for the estimated 125,000 children who turn five during that three-month window between September 2 and December 2, and who will no longer be eligible for kindergarten. Sen. Simitian says the way TK is funded, there’s no cost to the state for the first 13 years because all the children in the new program would have been in traditional kindergarten otherwise.

Minimum age requirements under Kindergarten Readiness Act. (Source:  Preschool California). Click to enlarge.
Minimum age requirements under Kindergarten Readiness Act. (Source: Preschool California) Click to enlarge.

“It’s important for parents and school districts to remember that the Governor’s proposal is just a proposal,” said Sen. Simitian in a written statement yesterday. “Any changes to that law must be approved by the Legislature.”

Lawmakers have already spoken twice on the issue: once when they approved the bill two years ago, and again last month, when the budget subcommittees in both the Senate and Assembly rejected the governor’s proposal in his January budget plan to eliminate TK.

“The governor needs to understand Transitional Kindergarten is here to stay and that we stand firmly behind the Kindergarten Readiness Act,” said Assemblymember Susan Bonilla (D-Concord), chair of the Budget Subcommittee on Education that voted to protect TK.

When he first proposed eliminating TK in his January budget proposal, Gov. Brown argued that, given the budget deficit, this is not the time to create a new program. The state Legislative Analyst’s Office agreed, writing last month in a brief for lawmakers that the plan is “reasonable for budgetary purposes,” and that it “does not make sense to offer [an] additional year of public education to a select group of children at the expense of

Gov. Brown's changes to TK in his May Revision budget.  (Source:  Calif. Dept. of Finance). Click to enlarge.
Gov. Brown's changes to TK in his May Revision budget. (Source: Calif. Dept. of Finance). Click to enlarge.

funding existing K-12 services.”

Since January, however, the governor has changed the language on the trailer bill several times, and the most recent version could open TK to even more children. At the same time he proposed making it a voluntary program for school districts, Gov. Brown proposed that if those districts want to enroll children who will not turn five until sometime during the academic year when they’re admitted, the state will pay average daily attendance (ADA) funding for those students from the first day of school. Sen. Simitian’s office estimates that could potentially add another 250,000 four-year-olds to TK and cost the state tens of millions of dollars.

Preschool vs. Transitional Kindergarten

Back in January, when Gov. Brown first recommended ending TK completely, he was going to use the savings to help pay down the more than $10 billion in school deferrals from the state. The May Revision changes that and instead would redirect the $91.5 million to state-funded, part-day preschool. The January budget called for cutting the preschool reimbursement to providers by 10 percent, raising the financial eligibility requirements, requiring parents to work full-time instead of attending college or a job-training program, and eliminating full-day preschool starting in 2013.

Scott Moore of Preschool California said the idea that such a plan would save money is false for a number of reasons. One is that about half the 125,000 children who miss the cutoff for kindergarten and would go to TK instead are also eligible for state-funded preschool, so the 15,500 spots that would reopen in part-day preschool wouldn’t come close to accommodating the kids who need it. In addition, Moore says there are already more than 80,000 children on the waiting list for state-funded preschool.

“What the administration is trying to do is pit the TK community against the preschool community,” said Moore. “It’s sad that we’ve gotten to a moment where politics has really taken over what is sound policy.”

The political process will be different this time around. Since lawmakers have already rejected the governor’s proposal to eliminate Transitional Kindergarten, for all practical purposes, that recommendation is no longer a part of the 2012-13 budget plan. Restoring it isn’t just a matter of reconsidering that vote; it would require an entirely new proposal to end TK, and a complete turnaround by the same legislative committees that overwhelmingly killed the idea just two months ago.

Kindergarten for all comes of age

For being so young, kindergarteners have incited more than their share of quarrels in California. State lawmakers and governors argued for a decade about how old kindergarten students should be, before voting in 2010 to raise the age to five. At the same time, they created Transitional Kindergarten (TK) for those who miss the new cutoff. Gov. Brown is currently trying to repeal the TK component.

Then there’s been the ongoing debate among experts over full-day versus part-day kindergarten, and how much play time in either the short or long day ought to be given over to real academics. The 3 R’s are winning.

Now, flying in a bit under the radar are two bills that would make kindergarten attendance mandatory in California. That kindergarten isn’t already required might surprise some people, but only 16 states and Washington, D.C. require kindergarten. Like California, New York is considering a change in its law. What is required in California is that school districts offer kindergarten; it’s up to parents whether to send their children or wait until first grade to start them in school. Not surprisingly, the bills are causing people to take sides in the schoolyard.

Last week, in a party line vote, the Assembly Education Committee approved AB 2203, by Assemblymember V. Manuel Pérez (D-Coachella), which would lower the age that California kids must start school from 6 to 5. Tomorrow, the same committee is scheduled to vote on AB 1772, introduced by Assemblymember Joan Buchanan (D-Alamo). Her bill has a slightly different take on the idea. Rather than changing the compulsory education age, AB 1772 makes kindergarten a mandatory prerequisite for enrolling in first grade.

“Ultimately, there is overwhelming evidence that indicates the earlier we start to educate our children, they’re going to be better off, they’re going to be more successful,” Assemblymember Pérez told the committee last week.  “The focus of kindergarten, what students are expected to learn, has changed significantly in the last fifteen years.”

Today’s youngest students are learning to read, do simple math and even understand scientific concepts, like knowing that water can change back and forth from a liquid to a solid state.  “In essence, it’s the new first grade,” San Francisco kindergarten teacher Catherine Sullivan testified at last week’s committee hearing.

Although it’s voluntary, kindergarten is very popular in California.  According to the state department of education, nearly 472,000 of eligible children attended public or private kindergarten last year – somewhere between 90 to 95 percent.  But elementary school teachers say those 25,000 to 50,000 children who don’t attend are at a serious disadvantage.

There’s still an emphasis in kindergarten on developing children’s socialization and behavior, and that’s especially important for Pam Makovkin’s students.  She teaches first and second grade special education students at Anderson Elementary in San Jose’s Oak Grove School District.  “These kids need to be taught regular school relationships, social relationships, what the expectations are at school; you have to sit, you have to listen,” said Makovkin.  “If they don’t know that when they get to me they have a really difficult time.”

It’s nearly as difficult for students in regular education classes.  Luke Allen has two to three students a year in his first grade class at Anderson Elementary who didn’t attend kindergarten. They’re still learning the alphabet while the rest of the class is learning to read.  It’s a common topic of discussion among first grade teachers, said Allen.  “Teachers are frustrated by how that leaves the students disadvantaged.”

Organized opponents

The bills seem to have caught some education advocates off guard.  The California School Boards Association just started querying its members last week.  As of yesterday, the California Kindergarten Association hadn’t seen the bills.  And the Association of California School Administrators will be discussing it at next week’s board meeting.

But it’s not an entirely new issue in California.  As far back as 1997, a similar measure failed in the Senate Education Committee.  Another bill never made it out of the Assembly Appropriations Committee in 2008.  In between, former Gov. Gray Davis vetoed a bill and, in his veto message, gave opponents of AB 2203 and AB 1772 some key talking points.

“I believe parents should retain the right to choose an education program for their 5-year old children,” wrote Davis.  Assemblymember Chris Norby (R-Fullerton), a member of the Education Committee, read that sentence aloud at the hearing.  Those are the words of Gray Davis when he vetoed an identical bill, said Norby, “and I think they’re words that we should heed today.”

“Democrats take away parental freedom:  mandatory kindergarten bill passes Democrat-controlled committee in California,” warned a headline in last Friday’s issue of the online publication, All Right Magazine (subtitled all right, all the time).

“Our parental rights and home school freedoms in California are under attack in an unprecedented way this year,” wrote the Home School Legal Defense Association in an E-lert on its website.

Assemblymember Buchanan’s bill attempts to address this concern by requiring kindergarten but leaving it up to parents to decide if they should enroll their child at age five or six.  “This is because there are situations in which a child may benefit by delaying enrollment until the next school year when that child is better prepared (developmentally, socially or in other ways) for Kindergarten,” Buchanan wrote in an email.  “We believe parents, often with input from teachers and other professionals, should have the ability to make that decision.”

Kindergarten for all 4-years olds

If not for its rarity, the pushmi-pullyu of Dr. Dolittle stories might best represent the tangled political narrative surrounding California’s Transitional Kindergarten program. Instead of being half gazelle and half unicorn, the two heads of TK are Gov. Brown on one end and the Legislature, parents, and advocacy groups on the opposite end. Try as they might, they just can’t move in the same direction.

This morning, the Assembly budget subcommittee on education will hold a hearing on the latest proposal by Gov. Brown to eliminate TK but keep the new age requirements in place. What’s unusual about this plan is that instead of saving the state $224 million, it could end up costing more than a billion dollars.

Transitional Kindergarten was established by Senate Bill 1381, known as the Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2010. It raised the age when children can start kindergarten by one month a year over the next three years and created TK for the children with late-fall birthdays who were no longer old enough to enroll in regular kindergarten.

The program would be a financial wash for the first 12 years because the children in TK would have been in school anyway, in traditional kindergarten. In his initial budget plan, Gov. Brown called for eliminating TK and using the money saved to help close the state’s budget deficit.

Gov. Brown's 2012-13 Education Trailer Bill regarding kindergarten admission (click to enlarge)
Gov. Brown's 2012-13 Education Trailer Bill regarding kindergarten admission (click to enlarge)

After several incarnations, the governor has introduced trailer bill language that ends TK but allows school districts to admit any child who will turn five at any point during the school year and get ADA funding for that child starting from the first day of school.  Taken to its extreme, that means that if the last day of class is June 30, the district could admit a child who will turn five on June 29 and get state funding for that student.

“If all school districts decided to enroll all those kids, that would be an additional cost pressure of $1.4 billion,” estimated Scott Moore, Senior Policy Advisor at Preschool California.

Enrollment wouldn’t be automatic, however; parents would have to apply for early admission and the district would determine on a case-by-case basis if it’s in the best interest of the child.  And it’s up to each district whether or not to even offer early admission.

Jeff Bell, with School Services of California, said he spends hours a week talking to districts about TK and each one has its own unique circumstances to consider. “This is the type of program that has many planning decisions surrounding it for a school district,” said Bell. “Do I need to offer it? Do I have a critical mass of students? Do I have the staffing for it?”

Depending on their answers, there are some districts that would choose not to offer a program and some that, as Bell said, would move “full steam ahead.” That means that children in one district could have a robust TK program, while kids the same age in a neighboring district would have to wait another year to start school.

“It’s unfortunate because it adds to the confusion, it adds to this very uncertain confusing proposal that’s constantly changing,” said Scott Moore, Senior Policy Advisor at Preschool California. “And it does this in the middle of kindergarten enrollment.”

The timing was too close to the wire for San Francisco Unified School District.  In late January, when registration was beginning for next fall, the district announced that it wouldn’t be offering TK because at that time there was no assurance that the state was going to pay for those students.

Last week, in a partial turnaround, San Francisco Unified said it would provide TK, but only at two schools, and parents would have to provide transportation.  For low-income families living in the Tenderloin and other outlying areas, the distance could very likely rule out TK.  But even other parents find it a possible insurmountable challenge.  For Marija Maldonado, whose middle child misses the new age cutoff by one day, it would be a 15 to 20 minute drive.  “No parent is going to drive a four-year-old 20 minutes, especially if you have another kid in school 3 or 4 blocks from your house, in rush hour traffic.”

Maldonado and other parents met with district officials and left feeling that the district wasn’t willing to make any accommodations such as placing children in regular kindergarten programs closer to their homes through the early enrollment process..

“We are so disappointed with their unwillingness to help these kids achieve an education.” she said.  “Aren’t all children deserving of an education regardless of race, gender and zip code?”

There is already talk of lawsuits for unequal access to education.  Learning Rights Law Center, which represents young children with disabilities, sent Gov. Brown a letter last week warning that the trailer bill violates the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act.

The attorneys wrote that by leaving it up to individual districts to decide whether to accept four year olds, “This proposal creates vastly different educational systems for young children with disabilities.  This is not only tragic, but a violation of federal protections for children with disabilities.”

San Francisco scraps Transitional Kindergarten

San Francisco Unified School District, which begins registration today for the next academic year, is the first district in California to forgo plans for Transitional Kindergarten. The decision leaves several hundred families, who thought their children would be entering the new educational program, with few options. The district on its website blames the governor’s proposed budget, which would cut money for a program that San Francisco Unified can’t afford on its own.

Districts like San Francisco are finding themselves in the position of making key budget decisions based on assumptions that won’t be certain until the Legislature passes a budget in late spring. In the case of TK, the picture is especially murky.

The Legislature established Transitional Kindergarten in 2010 when it moved up the entry age for kindergarten to September 1 instead of December 1. In shifting the age, the Legislature created the new program for the children who would turn five within that three-month window. They would attend a transitional kindergarten the first year, and then regular kindergarten the next year.

Gov. Jerry Brown, however, saw TK’s budget as a pot of $224 million to help close the state’s $9.2 billion budget gap. He kept the new entry age for kindergarten while eliminating funding for TK in his proposed budget, leaving children with September 1 through December 1 birthdays no option but another year of preschool. (He also proposed cutting $517 million in state preschool money, leaving low-income children with nowhere to go.)

At least that’s what it seemed in his January budget. Now, however, early childhood advocates, as well as State Senator Joe Simitian, the author of SB 1381, which created TK, say they’re not sure what the governor is proposing, but the administration seems to be backing away from its initial recommendation.

In an uncomfortable exchange last week, at a hearing before the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee,  Sen. Simitian tried, unsuccessfully, to get some clarity from Michael Cohen and Thomas Todd, two officials with the State Department of Finance. Initially, Todd said  that districts could provide TK, but it would be “on their own dime.” A few minutes later, according to a transcript of the proceedings, he said the state would provide ADA funding to children in Transitional Kindergarten when they turned five. (To watch a video of the hearing, click here and fast forward to 1:07:35.)

State Senator Joe Simitian at Budget and Fiscal Review Committee Hearing.  Click to enlarge.
State Senator Joe Simitian at Budget and Fiscal Review Committee Hearing. Click to enlarge.

A clearly mystified Simitian finally asked for the Finance Department to provide some actual language before the next hearing in February, to explain exactly what the governor is proposing. During a phone conversation,  he said the administration shouldn’t have tossed out a proposal with the potential to affect 125,000 children a year, and their parents, without a better understanding of its impact.

“As you probe on some of these issues, and I don’t say this critically or with any attitude, but it is clear that the administration hasn’t fully thought through the impact of the proposal,” said Simitian. “In fact, the proposal has not yet been fully developed.”

There’s also very little savings to the state by eliminating the TK budget, said Sen. Simitian. If the governor agrees to provide ADA funding for the students when they turn five, then the state would be saving only about one-quarter of $224 million in proposed savings the first year. On the flip side, if the cuts go through and enrollment drops because those 125,000 children are not in school, districts will still get their full ADA money for another year under the state’s declining enrollment program.

Scott Moore, senior policy advisor with Preschool California, suspects that the public outcry made the governor reconsider the proposal. “I think they’re recognizing the real impact of their proposal, which is TK doesn’t cost any new money, so the only way to get savings from it is if you actually deny kindergarten to children who were going to get it that year,” said Moore. “It’s an unfortunate situation creating a lot of chaos in our school system, which is already under tremendous pressure.”

That’s what San Francisco Unified hoped to avoid by halting registration. They had planned to put TK and kindergarten children together and provide differentiated instruction. Essentially, the younger students would spend two years in kindergarten. But the district’s choice-based enrollment system, where parents select their preferences for schools and then assignments are made based on capacity and other factors, would have been turned inside out if they found out in June or July that there was no money for the TK program.

“The reality is that we can’t take a gamble with offering placements that we then may later have to retract,” said district spokeswoman Gentle Blythe. “It would have a domino effect throughout our enrollment.”

If the legislature protects the funding, Blythe says San Francisco Unified will offer TK, but it will be a separate program run out of two early education schools that have space.

Families squeezed on both ends

The upheaval may be worse for the parents who were led to believe their children would be in school in the fall and could find themselves scrambling over the summer to find a preschool that has space and that’s affordable. Low-income parents would be especially hard hit, because the governor is also recommending cuts to the state’s subsidized child care program, and 60 percent of the students who would be affected by changes in TK are poor.

Child care advocates say more than 50,000 low-income families could lose access to affordable, high-quality child care.

“It’s not just that these parents are being turned away from a program that they thought they were going to have available to them; there may be no programs to go back to with all these cuts, or they may not even be eligible for any type of child care subsidy if it’s a low-income parent,” said Carlise King, research director for the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network.

Sen. Simitian is frustrated by how the governor’s recommendations have taken what should have been an orderly, phased-in transition and made it more complicated, uncertain, and confusing. While he understands the difficulty that’s created for districts like San Francisco Unified, the senator wants to remind them that until and unless the Legislature overturns SB 1381, then nothing has changed.

“SB 1381 was passed by both houses of the Legislature and signed into law by Governor Schwarzenegger in 2010, and it takes effect commencing with the 2012-2013 school year,” explained Simitian. “There’s nothing ambiguous about that.”

Putting kitchens into kindergarten

Kindergarten teacher Paulie Esquivel looked around the model classroom and started taking a mental inventory – in reverse. Dress-up area; she used to have that. Puppet theater; that, too, was once in her class. Ditto for the sand table, paint and easel, and water table.

Puppet Theater in TK model classroom (photo, Jeannine Campbell). Click to enlarge.
Puppet Theater in TK model classroom (photo, Jeannine Campbell). Click to enlarge.

“To me, it’s what kindergarten used to be: fun and exciting,” said Esquivel, who teaches in the Planada Elementary School District, about eight miles south of Merced. “You don’t see all this any more.”

In the fourteen years since she started teaching, kindergarten has become first grade. There’s a lot more paper and pencil work and listening to the teacher, and a lot less of what Esquivel describes as the “creative, artsy, fun, play stuff.”

This week she got a glimpse of the future at a transitional kindergarten summit in Sacramento, and it looked a bit more like the past. Transitional kindergarten (TK) is  what regular kindergarten used to be.  The model classroom had a dress-up area where kids could be firefighters, police officers and doctors.  It had giant floor

Play kitchen in Model TK Classroom. (photo, K. Baron) Click to enlarge.
Play kitchen in Model TK Classroom. (photo, K. Baron) Click to enlarge.

puzzles, puppets, an area to build cities and bridges with wooden blocks, and a kitchen with sturdy wooden appliances for playing pretend and baking mud pies.

“This clearly is a classroom for young fives, you can tell that the minute you walk in the door,” said State Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) when he toured the model TK classroom at the summit.  Simitian is author of SB 1381, the Kindergarten Readiness Act, which moves up the kindergarten cut-off date from December 2nd to September 1st, phasing it in over three years, so that by 2014 children will have to be five years old to enter kindergarten.  (Read our article about TK research here).

Kindergarten not spared standards and assessment

“The moment of clarity for me was as I was working on this legislation, I was looking at a kindergarten report

State Senator Joe Simitian in Model TK Classroom. (photo, K. Baron) click to enlarge.
State Senator Joe Simitian in Model TK Classroom. (photo, K. Baron) click to enlarge.

card and came across the assessment for algebra skills and I thought, ‘This is not the kindergarten that most of us remember so fondly,'” said Simitian.

By requiring children to be five when they start their formal education, Simitian and many educators hope the kids will be mature enough to sit still for longer periods of time so they can concentrate on learning. Transitional kindergarten was the necessary hook to get parents of children with late fall birthdays on board, who otherwise saw the prospect of paying for another year of childcare or preschool.

“I think it’s a really great idea,” said Ann Villegas, a kindergarten teacher in the San Lorenzo Unified School District.  “I have thirteen children in my classroom right now that started as four year olds, and I feel like it would be a huge service to them to be able to have that extra time to mature a little and be ready for the academics of kindergarten.”

Villegas has been teaching for ten years, so she never knew the kindergartens of yore, but she says her principal gives her

Dress up area in Model TK Classroom (photo, K. Baron) Click to enlarge.
Dress up area in Model TK Classroom (photo, K. Baron) Click to enlarge.

leeway and a nearby storage room.  “So I can bring my kitchen in or my puppet theater in.  I can bring them for an afternoon and then put them back [in storage],” Villegas explained.

San Lorenzo Unified is starting TK next year and Villegas wants to teach it.  “I think I’ve always had a developmental approach to teaching and this just feeds right into it and allows me to teach my students how I think they’ll best learn,” she explained.

Although the official launch date for TK is next fall, more than twenty California school districts have already started offering the classes, with promising results.  Magnolia School District in Anaheim has four classes serving 100 young fives and may open a fifth class next year.

Eighty-five percent of Magnolia’s students are English learners, and many are poor and homeless, said Jeannine Campbell, director of early childhood education for the district.  So even for their older five-year-olds, meeting the state standards for kindergarten is a challenge.  Consider this requirement for mathematical reasoning: 

1.0 Students make decisions about how to set up a problem:
1.1 Determine the approach, materials, and strategies to be used.
1.2 Use tools and strategies, such as manipulatives or sketches, to model problems.

2.0 Students solve problems in reasonable ways and justify their reasoning:
2.1  Explain the reasoning used with concrete objects and/or pictorial representations.
2.2 Make precise calculations and check the validity of the results in the context of the problem.

Campbell said they started TK as a proactive effort. “We really believe that prevention is far better than intervention and remediation,” she said.  Over the five years of the program, they’ve learned lessons and made refinements that they shared at the summit to help other districts avoid the same snags. For instance, Magnolia started TK as a full-day program, but quickly realized the children couldn’t handle a six-hour day.

“Their little four-year-old bodies just were not ready for that,” said Campbell.  “We found children were taking naps on the carpet and it wasn’t the best learning environment.”  They changed it to half a day in the fall and a full day after winter break, when all the children have turned five.

The great budget unknown

Amid the excitement at the summit, there were also some anxious rumblings that, faced with an ongoing budget deficit, Gov. Brown may be tempted to delete funding for TK in his January budget proposal.

The way TK is funded, there’s no cost to the state for the first 13 years because all the children in the new classes would have been in traditional kindergarten otherwise.  Every year until they graduate from high school, paying for this group of about 126,000 students will be a wash.

But if TK’s budget appropriation was eliminated, and the new enrollment ages kept in place, then the state could capture an additional $700 million.  Of course districts

Transitional Kindergarten Model Classroom. (photo, Jeannine Campbell). Click to enlarge.
Transitional Kindergarten Model Classroom. (photo, Jeannine Campbell). Click to enlarge.

probably wouldn’t save any money because it’s unlikely they would lose enough students to warrant dropping an entire class, so they’d still have all the fixed costs but with less money due to the drop in ADA funds.

It’s hard to know what to make of the talk, however, because there’s been no hint of such a proposal from the Governor’s office.  “It’s a rumor.  There’s always somebody floating an idea, that’s one the scary things,” said Cathy Wietstock, who oversees TK for the Orange County Department of Education.   But she acknowledged that even without any indication at all from Gov. Brown that TK is on the table, district officials are worried about moving ahead with the program.  “They’re saying, ‘Wait a minute, is this really happening?’  Yes it is,” said Wietstock. “The law is there, we need to comply with the law, so the train has left the station”

Brown shapes, signs RTTT entry

After keeping child education advocates and his own staff in suspense for months, Gov. Jerry Brown approved the state’s application to the federal Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge on Wednesday – but not before shaping it in a way that will either turn off or intrigue federal officials and competition judges.

The Race to the Top scoring guidelines emphasize states’ policies to improve learning and development programs for young children. But, consistent with Brown’s philosophy of letting 1,000 local districts – or, in this case, 16 regional consortia – bloom in a state as big and diverse as California, the application calls for turning over key decisions and 85 percent of the federal money to county and local efforts.

“The heart of our plan is local control, where the effort to improve the quality of early learning can best be accomplished,” Brown explained,

Brown made the case in a letter to Secretaries Arne Duncan and Kathleen Sebelius for giving regional consortia the power to decide how the Race to the Top dollars will be spent.
Brown made the case in a letter to Secretaries Arne Duncan and Kathleen Sebelius for giving regional consortia the power to decide how the Race to the Top dollars will be spent.

in a letter to U.S. Dept. of Education Secretary Arne Duncan and U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius accompanying the  225-page application. Each consortium “will decide how to distinguish levels of quality, will identify priorities for improvement, and will determine which specific ways it will improve quality. I believe that this approach will be much more successful that any one-fits-all mandate from the state capitol.”

Sue Burr, executive director of the State Board of Education on Board President Michael Kirst’s behalf, and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, an early supporter of this Race to the Top competition, also signed the application. California is eligible for as much as $100 million out of the $500 million pot of one-time money. The competition is expected to be crowded, with Florida and New York –  but not Texas – among the biggest states pursuing the maximum grants. (Note: California’s application is too big to upload for the blog, and it has not yet been posted on the state Department of Education website. Stay tuned.)

Scott Moore, senior policy advisor with Preschool California and the former executive of the state Early Learning Advisory Council, said that Brown has tried to “thread the needle” in satisfying the federal government’s requirements while not yielding on his own. The application “is not aligned with what the feds have outlined, but they could say, ‘Fund California and compare its approach to the other states.’ I can see both sides of this.”

California took the same tack in the second round of the K-12 Race to the Top, letting seven reform-minded districts write the application. The state became a semifinalist for that money, but Brown hasn’t decided whether to let the seven districts, which include Los Angeles, Long Beach, and San Francisco Unified,  apply again later this year, citing his worry that the federal money might require future state commitments. He initially had the same fear about the preschool competition, but the application reaffirms his demand that “the choices made in this application avoid new spending commitments and focus on smart uses of one-time investments.”

The heart of the state’s application involves the implementation of a Quality Rating and Improvement System by the 16 regional consortia – county offices of education and First 5 commissions in 15 counties – covering 1.8 million young children, about two-thirds of the age group. QRIS is a method of evaluating individual early learning programs, based on the physical environment, the quality of instruction, the child/teacher ratio, the education and effectiveness of the teachers, and other factors. While some states may tie the ratings to levels of state funding – and gain points in the competition – California is not proposing to do so. The goal is to encourage preschools, especially those serving low-income students and English learners, to improve the level of their care on their own, through teacher trainings, purchase of high-quality materials, and adoption of the state’s Early Childhood Frameworks or standards for developing children’s readiness for school. Each consortium will decide how to spend its share of the money, up to $1 million or more each year for four years.

The application doesn’t focus on transitional kindergarten, a 2-year kindergarten program for the state’s 120,000 late-birthday four-year-olds that will be phased in starting next fall. But Sue Burr said that each consortium could choose to direct money toward materials and professional development for their local districts’ transitional kindergartens.

Voluntary information for CALPADS

As with the K-12 Race to the Top, this competition emphasizes the use of data. The federal government ideally wants every state to include data on preschool students into its statewide data system. But Brown, consistent with his view that data should serve local schools’ needs, not state accountability purposes, demanded limits. The state has developed a useful assessment tool, the Desired Results Developmental Profile, that measures a child’s developmental progress based on teacher observations. The consortia and local preschools may choose to enter the assessments on students into CALPADS, the statewide database, to give kindergarten teachers a heads-up on the development readiness of incoming students. But the application emphasizes that CALPADS data for young children will be done voluntarily and will not be used for accountability purposes.

California became an early-childhood education leader 13 years ago, when voters dedicated a 50-cent tax on cigarettes and tobacco products to create First 5 California, distributing $650 million per year to First 5 commissions in 58 counties. Burr said that Race to the Top will focus on improving the quality of early-learning programs, with the goal that every student will be ready for kindergarten.

Moore, of Preschool California, praised the State Board, the Department of Education and advocates for joining together on the application – but especially the staff of the Child Development Division. “They worked tremendously hard with time and policy constraints,” he said, “knowing it might all be for naught” if Brown chose not to move forward.

Why would California leave $100 million on the table for early education?

With the Oct. 19 deadline for applying for the preschool version of Race to the Top rapidly approaching, California officials have yet to announce whether they will apply for a $100 million early learning federal grant for which the state is eligible. Why the hesitation? This should be a no-brainer.

This year alone, more than 35,000 preschoolers were dropped from the subsidized early education rolls because of budget constraints. With California confronting major cuts to initiatives designed to ensure that all children enter school ready to learn, why on earth would the state leave Washington’s money, aimed at underwriting early education, on the table?

Decades of research underscore the critical importance of high-quality early education in closing the achievement gap for low-income youngsters. California’s lawmakers recognize this fact. The state has been moving toward a system of top-caliber programs – precisely the kinds of initiatives that have been shown to generate better outcomes for children.

The new transitional kindergarten program, signed into law last year despite our fiscal woes, is the first such statewide venture in the country. This initiative provides a two-year kindergarten experience for the youngest 130,000 four-year-olds in public school. It’s the perfect opportunity to connect high-quality early learning with K-12, ensuring that gains made during pre-k can be sustained in school. California has also pioneered in developing curriculum standards, for infants and toddlers in child development programs as well as for preschoolers; what’s more, it has devised curriculum standards for the youngest English learners.

These efforts show the strides that the state has made in ensuring that poor children enter school ready to learn. A Race to the Top-Early Learning grant would maintain this momentum, strengthening the early learning programs that serve more than 400,000 poor children. Using a chunk of grant funds to help implement transitional kindergarten would be a godsend to financially strapped school districts. The federal money could also underwrite a system that links state and local early education initiatives, promoting greater efficiency and effectiveness.

The regulations from Washington are flexible enough to accommodate differences among states’ needs and budgetary realities. That means California can tailor its application to meet the state’s early learning priorities without having to spend more state dollars down the road. But Jerry Brown, whose sign-off is needed, hasn’t signaled whether he will go after those funds. The clock is ticking – don’t California’s youngest learners deserve a shot at this federal pot of gold?

David L. Kirp, Professor of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, is the author of Kids First: Five Big Ideas to Improve Children’s Lives and America’s Future.

Still noncommital on Race to the Tot

Applications for the preschool version of Race to the Top are due in about six weeks, but state officials have yet to decide whether California would join about three dozen states in applying.

Early childhood advocates say that the final criteria for the $500 million early learning competition are not as strict as federal officials initially implied and would give California at least a fighting chance for up to $100 million. They want the state to pursue the money.

“Federal officials did a good job of showing flexibility,” said Ted Lempert, president of Children Now, “but it will be up to us to make the case.”

A Race to the Top application must be jointly signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and State Board of Education President Michael Kirst. Sue Burr, Executive Director of the State Board of Education, was noncommittal. She said in an email that the state would participate in a webinar this week and workshops in mid-September to learn more about what the feds expect.

Last month, Burr wrote Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to urge them not to impose on the winners “ongoing costs and cost pressures that cannot be met after the grant period is over.” That will remain a concern, and Burr will want to clarify whether the state can use the money for pre-kindergarten pilot projects in regions or counties instead of committing to projects like kindergarten assessments statewide – a potentially expensive commitment.

Lempert and Scott Moore, a senior policy adviser with Preschool California (see his TOPed opinion column today elsewhere on this page), agree on two priorities for a Race to the Top grant. One would be to fund the development of the curriculum and teacher training for transitional kindergarten, a two-year program for late-birthday 4-year-olds that California will phase in starting a year from now. The other would be to pilot test a Quality Rating and Improvement System, or QRIS, an evaluation rubric to provide a consistent, uniform way for state and county officials to evaluate the effectiveness of – and potentially to differentiate funding for – preschool programs.

Rolling out such a system is the top priority of the Race to the Top, and those states, like California, that already have developed a model will have an advantage in the competition; it’s worth up to a quarter of the maximum points. Two dozen states have developed QRISs, but, among larger states, neither Florida nor Texas plans to apply for a grant (not under Gov. Rick Perry, who opposes all things federal), and California is further along than New York, Moore said. (An analysis by the New America Foundation that handicaps states’ chances of getting a grant puts California in the middle, with most states, as possible contenders.)

The feds are requiring neither a statewide database including preschool children nor a statewide kindergarten readiness test as prerequisites for applying, but those states that have them will get extra points in the competition. Teachers unions had expressed worry that the tests would be used to evaluate teachers or to deny children access to kindergarten. But Duncan, in a press conference last week,  emphasized neither would be the case.

One potential stumbling block for California was Gov. Brown’s elimination from the budget of the state’s Early Learning Advisory Council, which would have administered the Race to the Top grant. The council, which Scott Moore ran as executive director, had a $10 million federal grant to test QRIS in the state; the money is still there. But not having a council – or its equivalent – will set back the state’s Race to the Top application, Moore said. He expects Brown will reestablish the council, perhaps within the state Department of Education.

Top pre-K priorities: transitional kindergarten, child care inspections

Earlier this summer, in his 2011-12 budget, Gov. Brown proposed reducing the size of state government by eliminating more than 40 state councils and committees. I recently stepped down as Executive Director from one of these councils, the Early Learning Advisory Council (ELAC). The Brown administration is still deciding what to do with ELAC, including considering a proposal to reconstitute an existing committee under the California Department of Education. Likely the best way to move forward, this proposal would eliminate the Council, hand off its important work to an existing committee, and retain the $10.8 million in federal dollars that goes with it. While the fate of the ELAC is unclear, one thing remains certain: The critical work of better preparing our most vulnerable children for success in school and life must continue.

Preschool isn’t the stuff for which governors are remembered, but it is one of the few areas where a little progress can go a long way towards improving California’s socioeconomic well being. A mountain of results, from economics to education to neuroscience, have compelled the leaders of business, education, and law enforcement to champion investing in young children to reap long-term benefits. And over the next several years, the Brown administration has significant opportunities to make real progress for California’s youngest children, even with no new state funding. Here are just two ideas to start:

  • Make implementation of transitional kindergarten a top priority. The last time California created a grade was in 1891, when kindergarten was established. In 2010, SB 1381 (Simitian/Steinberg) created transitional kindergarten, or TK, for the 130,000 4-year-olds eligible each year for kindergarten. Evidence and the experience of many teachers and parents suggest that most 4-year-olds are too young for California’s academically rigorous kindergarten, and that a year of preparation, such as TK, would better prepare them for success in kindergarten and help to close the achievement gap.

Hundreds of new TK classrooms will be opening this month, beginning the march towards a total of 6,000 classrooms over the next four years. Surveys of district administrators and teachers show that while they don’t want too much state intervention, they are asking for help with defining TK by creating a bridge between the existing kindergarten standards and preschool learning foundations. Specifically, they are asking for support in identifying best practices and models for professional development, curriculum, and appropriate evaluation. Several early adopter districts are doing groundbreaking work, like creating new curricular models based on the latest brain development research on how dual language learners most effectively acquire language. A good beginning to sharing this work can be found at www.tkcalifornia.org.

But the opportunity TK presents is bigger than just a new grade. It is the opportunity to focus all of early education on what should be its top priority: every child reading by the end of third grade. The reason this is so important is simple: until third grade, children are learning to read; after third grade, children are reading to learn. Yet to be effective learners, children must develop what Nobel Laureate economist James Heckman calls “soft skills,” or what neuroscientists refer to as “executive function.” Parents and teachers describe it as mindfulness, paying attention, good decision-making, concentration, conflict resolution, and empathy. Supporting this social-emotional development is what preschools are often best at, and what has been typically neglected by elementary schools, which are driven to narrowly focus on language arts and math. Where elementary schools place their emphasis, language arts and math, preschools generally have room for improvement. If TK is used as a bridge between preschool and elementary, this would support all of early education to focus on the whole child, with the ultimate goal of children learning to read by the end of third grade.

  • Protect our children in child care. California currently ranks 50th among states for our oversight of child care facilities. That is because the state requires facilities to be visited only once every five years. Given that the state visits nail salons once every other year, how come we have not figured out how to do better for our children?  As it happens, we should applaud the administrators at California’s Child Care Licensing division because they have figured out how to do it better. It is a new monitoring system, which the division has successfully piloted, called “New Directions.” It is simple: Licensing analysts focus on the health and safety indicators that research shows matter, and this cuts the time it takes to visit a facility by half or more, making the increased number of visits cost-neutral. Other states have been doing this successfully for years. Division administrators say that, if the pilot were fully implemented, child care centers would be visited once a year, and family child care homes once every other year. California already charges more fees for child care licensing than most states, yet we are ranked dead last in oversight. The solution is simple, tested, and cost-neutral. The Brown administration ought to order its immediate implementation.

Over the last two years, child care and development programs, including preschool, have sustained a devastating cut of 23 percent, resulting in the elimination of services to more than 50,000 children. In the midst of these cuts, it is even more important for all of us to be creative and focused on what we can do now to make real improvements for our youngest children.

Scott Moore is the senior policy adviser at Preschool California, a non-profit advocacy organization working to increase access to high-quality early learning for all of California’s children, starting with those who need it most. He is the former executive director for the California Early Learning Advisory Council.

State weighs early ed Race to Top

California is not among the 36 states and District of Columbia that Education Week reports have expressed an intention to apply for the federal government’s $500 million Race to the Top early education grant competition later this year. But that doesn’t mean the state won’t decide to apply, State Board of Education President Michael Kirst says. Behind the scenes, children’s advocacy groups like Children Now and Preschool California are certainly encouraging it to.

State officials will wait until the grant regulations are out this summer before deciding. California would be wary of having to make any long-term financial commitments in exchange for one-time money, Kirst and State Board of Education Executive Director Sue Burr indicated.

Burr expressed that concern in a letter this month to Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. “We simply cannot afford to make policy changes or put in place program expansions that will create ongoing costs and cost pressures that cannot be met after the grant period is over,” Burr wrote. “As currently written, the draft requirements, priorities, selection criteria, and definitions will make it a challenge for California to participate responsibly.”

The Department of Education is proposing to award grants of between $50 million and $100 million. That’s not much of a range, and isn’t much of an incentive for big states like California to launch comprehensive efforts. Burr suggested allowing states to focus on a few priorities instead of a full battery of items that the feds would like: early learning assessments, kindergarten readiness tests, and inclusion of prekindergarten students in a statewide student database. She also asked that the feds permit applications on behalf of regional or county projects instead of requiring only statewide efforts. California took this tack in the second round of the K-12 Race to the Top competition last year; seven districts, including Fresno, Long Beach, and Los Angeles Unified districts – which combined are larger than many states – led California’s application and nearly came away with some money.

Burr said that California might focus on issues related to school readiness: linking standards for early childhood programs to the Common Core standards the state has adopted, developing (but not mandating) prekindergarten assessments, and aligning the curriculum for the state’s new transitional kindergarten to K12 standards. These would be reasonable one-time expenditures, she said.

If it does apply, California would likely once again be penalized for not having an effective student longitudinal data system. It was one of areas in the last Race to the Top application that hurt the state’s chances. And since then, the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System’s troubles have continued. Not only does it not include prekindergarten students, but Gov. Jerry Brown wanted to shut down CALPADS and give back the federal money for its completion (the Legislature reinstated the money anyway.).

Playing the cards right

CALPADS aside, Ted Lempert, president of Children Now, says that California is recognized for several early childhood initiatives. Chief among them is the Quality Rating and Improvement System, which measures the effectiveness of child care providers and rewards those that meet high standards. It’s being tested in several counties with the help of foundations.

Lempert said he’d like to see Race to the Top money used to continue pilot programs in counties adopting the child provider rating system, to roll out readiness assessments and to add prekindergarten students to CALPADS, so that all of these projects are ready to go to scale when the state gets more revenue.

“There’s is a way to pitch our application to say, ‘Help us to continue with the building blocks for pilots in key areas around the state,’” Lempert said.

Other states appear to be moving ahead with their applications, pending the final regulations. But Lempert said informal conversations are occurring in California, so it won’t be starting from scratch if the State Board and Superintendent Tom Torlakson do decide later this summer to move forward. Lempert hopes they will.