Leg erases Gov’s ed reforms

John Fensterwald co-authored this article.

The Legislature’s budget package is missing many of Gov. Brown’s controversial education initiatives. A joint Senate and Assembly plan outlined yesterday protects transitional kindergarten, the science mandate, and the AVID program, rejects the weighted student funding formula, and offers districts a choice in how they’re paid for state mandates.

“This budget protects and invests in public education this year, and increases Proposition 98 funding by $17 billion over the next four years,” said Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez during a press conference Wednesday morning with Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.

The overall budget plan that lawmakers will vote on this Friday would erase California’s $20 billion structural deficit, balance the budget for each of the next three years, and create a $2 billion reserve by fiscal year 2015-16, according to Pérez and Steinberg.

Spending for K-12 education would be $53.6 billion for the 2012-13 fiscal year. That’s about $1 billion more than the governor had anticipated. Because the budget assumes more revenue for education through the passage of Brown’s tax initiative in November, the state is obligated under Proposition 98 to start paying off the “maintenance factor,” the IOUs given to schools during bad times. But if the tax increase fails, the Legislature and governor are in accord on the need for cuts of $5.5 billion for K-12 schools and community colleges. That would translate to a K-12 cut of $450 per student.

About $2.9 billion of that would come from lowering the Prop 98 guarantee due to a drop in state revenues. The rest would be made up through shifting two expenses into Prop 98 that are currently funded outside the guarantee. Those are repayment of general obligation bonds for school construction and the Early Start early education program. (Go here to read more about that in an earlier TOPed article.)

In addition, the legislative package would include trailer bill language allowing K-12 schools to cut 15 additional days from the next two school years.

Weighty issue

The governor’s biggest loss, for now, is the weighted student funding formula. Lawmakers’ refusal to include it in the budget isn’t an outright rejection of the concept of a simpler, fairer finance system that sends more money to districts with high proportions of English learners and indigent students. And Brown is expected to bring up the issue again this summer. But many lawmakers felt that the governor was jamming them to accept sweeping changes without justifying the basis for his formula, while legislators from suburban districts called for restoring all of the money lost to cuts over the past four years before redistributing new money.

Rick Simpson, the deputy chief of staff for Speaker Pérez, said that lawmakers wanted more assurances that the money under a weighted formula would actually reach targeted students. As part of his reform,  Brown proposed giving districts total flexibility in deciding how the dollars would be spent. “If you’re going to deregulate the entire school finance system,” Simpson said, “and if you’re not going to regulate inputs, you ought to have an accountability system to make sure you get those positive outcomes. We have lots of disparate pieces that we refer to as accountability, but it’s not a system.”

High school science intact

Brown had proposed eliminating the mandate for more than two dozen K-12 programs, including (the most expensive) requiring schools to offer a second year of high school science. Dropping a mandate would mean that districts could continue offering a program by finding money in their existing budgets. Brown also proposed reimbursing districts a flat $28 per student for the remaining mandated programs.

Science teachers and the business community protested that the state shouldn’t retreat from its commitment to science education (see commentary on this page), and the Legislature agreed, keeping it and all of the current mandates intact. However, lawmakers didn’t increase the reimbursement rate either, so districts can expect to continue accumulating a big IOU for meeting the science mandate. The state has also gone to court, arguing that the $250 million cost on the books for offering a second year of science is way too high, based on a false assumption that high schools had to add a period to the day to accommodate it, according to Paul Golaszewski, an analyst with the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Applying for a straight $28 per student would be the easiest, quickest way for districts to be reimbursed for mandated costs. However, the Legislature also would continue to allow districts to submit bills detailing the cost of complying with mandates – and hope that the state accepts the claims.

Starting early

The joint budget proposal allowed the early childhood education community to exhale a bit, by denying a number of significant cuts that the governor was seeking. He wanted to cut the reimbursement to preschool providers by 10 percent, raise the financial eligibility requirement, place a two-year cap on families receiving childcare services while attending a school or a job-training program, and eliminate full-day preschool starting next year.

“The Legislature has really stood up for young children,” said Scott Moore, Senior Policy Advisor at Preschool California. No one got away unscathed, however, and childcare will be taking a $50 million cut and losing 6,000 spaces for children in full-day state preschool, the childcare voucher program, and the infant-toddler child development program.  That’s on top of a billion dollar reduction and 100,000 spaces lost since 2008. Still, said Moore, “it’s significantly less that we were fearing would be cut.”

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.

Will the real TK stand up?

It’s getting so that understanding the budgetary machinations of Transitional Kindergarten requires a master’s degree, or maybe a Little Orphan Annie Secret Decoder Pin.

In the month since Gov. Brown released his 2012-13 budget plan and recommended canceling Transitional Kindergarten (TK), supporters have found it hard to keep track of what the administration is proposing and where the savings would come from.

They were further confounded yesterday, when the State Legislative Analyst’s Office released its review of the governor’s education budget. Although the LAO seconded the governor’s call to eliminate funding for TK, it seemed to contradict some of the administration’s figures. (See John Fensterwald’s article today for the LAO’s review of the entire education budget proposal).

“At this point, it seems like the Department of Finance is making it up as they go along; we’ve had three different versions of the program in the last four weeks,” said State Senator Joe Simitian.

His bill, SB 1381, which the Legislature passed in 2010, moved up the entry age for kindergarten to September 1 from December 1, phasing it in over three years beginning next fall. It also created the TK program for the children who turn five during that three-month period and are no longer eligible for kindergarten. Instead, they would get TK one year and regular kindergarten the next.

By keeping the age change but eliminating funding for TK, Gov. Brown estimates the state will save about $224 million in ADA dollars next year in reduced kindergarten enrollment. When Sen. Simitian pointed out at a legislative hearing a few weeks ago that districts would still get the same amount of money for another year under the declining enrollment program, a Finance Department official said that had been factored in. Not so, according to yesterday’s LAO report. It said the Legislature would also have to “make a corresponding change to the ‘declining enrollment’ adjustment.” In other words, eliminate that, too.

Trailing language

The administration has been similarly vague on the options for those four-year-olds whose families first thought they’d be going to kindergarten, then to Transitional Kindergarten. As we reported here, at that same legislative hearing in January, Finance Department officials initially said that districts could provide TK, but wouldn’t receive any state funds to pay for it. Then they said the state would provide ADA funds once the children turned five.

Sen. Simitian again asked for clarification and it came last week in the budget trailer language, which once again left Sen. Simitian perlexed. It keeps the age cut-off dates, but lets individual districts decide if they want to run Transitional Kindergarten programs. Then the trailer bill says something that both Sen. Simitian and the group Preschool California suspect the administration never intended. It allows school districts to “admit to a kindergarten at the beginning of the school year, a child having attained the age of five years at any time during the school year with the approval of the parent or guardian.”

It also apparently makes the districts eligible for ADA funds even for the four-year olds. That’s how it seemed to Sen. Simitian, and that’s how it appeared to the Legislative Counsel when he asked that office for an interpretation.

According to Preschool California, more than 100 school districts have either started TK pilot programs on their own or indicated that they plan to launch them in the fall despite the governor’s proposal. At least one district, San Francisco Unified, told parents not to bother enrolling their children for TK, because there won’t be a program without state funding.

That could create unequal access to education for children, with one district offering a version of TK while a neighboring district does not. If the latter district is low-income, then there may be an equal protection violation. At the very least, said Sen. Simitian, it’s going to create chaos and anxiety up and down the state.

“I don’t mean to say this with attitude, but I’ve got so much frustration at this point,” said the senator. The Legislature already debated and approved the bill, “and now the administration is trying to revisit the issue through the budget process. That’s completely inappropriate,” said Sen. Simitian, adding that if the governor wants to change policy, he should introduce a bill like everyone else.

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.”

Community wins Promise grant

The Jackson Triangle in the Bay Area city of Hayward is one of five recipients of a federal Promise Neighborhood grant to give students in the low-income area academic, lifestyle, and community support to succeed in school. California State University, East Bay is lead agency on the project, which will receive $25 million over the next five years.

Map of the Jackson Triangle Promise Neighborhood (Source:  Hayward Promise Neighborhood) Click to enlarge.
Map of the Jackson Triangle Promise Neighborhood (Source: Hayward Promise Neighborhood) Click to enlarge.

Promise Neighborhoods are modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone, a groundbreaking program that runs charter schools, offers afterschool and preschool programs, and provides free parenting classes, health care, counseling, and access to social services to thousands of children and adults to help break the cycle of poverty through education.

The Hayward Promise Neighborhood is a partnership of about a dozen schools and agencies, including the city, the Hayward Unified School District, Cal State East Bay, Chabot College, the local regional occupation program, the Child Care Coordinating Council of Alameda County, and the county public health department.

“Sometimes in education there are these wonderful points of light, but a lot of times they’re siloed,” said Carolyn Nelson, dean of the College of Education and Allied Studies at Cal State East Bay and principal investigator for the project. “The whole idea of the Promise Neighborhood project is to, if you will, de-silo these wonderful projects and community resources so that they’re all coherently focused on the big picture of contributing to student achievement.”

The Jackson Triangle neighborhood doesn’t have many points of light right now. It’s been hard hit by the recession, forcing multiple families to share single-family housing; it doesn’t have many resources for residents; and it’s generally lacking in stability. The grant application to the federal government describes the area this way:

“A severely neglected community of low-income families, 37% immigrants, and most with a high school education or less. Inadequate public transit, unsafe parks, food insecurity, limited licensed child care, and redlining drive social inequities. JT schools are chronically underperforming and many JT students drop out of high school and college. Residents are disproportionately unemployed, most lack college degrees, and 61.5% spend more than 30% of their monthly income on housing.”

Focus on education

All the resources that will be brought to bear in the neighborhood are focused on one overriding goal: creating a continuum of services from cradle to career to make

Pathway from cradle-to-career in Jackson Triangle.  (Source:  Hayward Promise Neighborhood).  Click to enlarge.
Pathway from cradle-to-career in Jackson Triangle. (Source: Hayward Promise Neighborhood). Click to enlarge.

sure that students are ready for kindergarten and everything that follows.

“One of the things that we noticed in doing our needs assessment is that a significant percentage of our kids don’t come in with the level of language that you expect when they enter kindergarten,” said Andrew Kevy, the project manager and coordinator of child welfare for the Hayward Unified School District. “It’s our intention to start early on and to build the early childhood education network and then move up the pathway to elementary, middle, and high school.”

Many of the strategies to improve the schools and student achievement were developed last year through a $500,000 planning grant that the Hayward group received from the federal government, and are laid out in a 21-page plan.

Although the Harlem Children’s Zone inspired the Obama Administration to launch the program, the Hayward plan differs in one significant way: it doesn’t include charter schools. With charter schools, not everyone gets to participate, said Cal State’s Nelson, but the Jackson Triangle is inclusive.

“We’re starting with a public school and we’re working within the public school; we’re not creating a lottery system like a charter school, and I think that’s a distinctive difference which I can really embrace,” said Nelson. “You don’t pick and choose, and I think that will make a significant contribution to show what it really takes to make students successful within a public school setting.”

California wins early learning grant

California has won a $52.6 million grant for early childhood education programs through the federal government’s Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge.  US Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius announced the nine winners of the $500 million competitive grant program at a White House press event this morning.

“It’s great for our state,” said Scott Moore,  senior policy advisor with Preschool California, which helped write California’s application. The state’s proposal was unique because it calls for locally-based programming rather than a large statewide grant.  Sixteen regional consortia in the state will share 85 percent of the funds and most of the decision making.

This is a “recognition that what California is poised to do is seen as cutting edge and leading in the nation in terms of providing, especially low income children and children starting to fall behind, the chance to catch up and the chance to be ready for school,” said Moore.

California was among nine states awarded grants;  35 states plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico applied.  The state had been seeking $100 million dollars, but a note on the U.S. Department of Education website says there wasn’t enough money to meet that request (see box at right).

Race to the Top - Early Learning Challenge winners and grant amounts (source:  US Dept. of Education) click to enlarge
Race to the Top - Early Learning Challenge winners and grant amounts (source: US Dept. of Education) click to enlarge

Sue Burr, executive director of the State Board of Education, said the Department of Education will consult with the consortia members about how to proceed with less money.  The options range from reducing the number of regions in the consortia or keeping it at 16 and having each of them do a little less – perhaps working with fewer schools or not holding as many training sessions.  “I think it will still be a robust implementation,” said Burr.

The California plan calls for developing a tiered quality rating system to encourage early childhood programs to have quality teachers and quality instructional materials, and to make sure they’re aligned with the skills children will need when they enter kindergarten.

The grant almost didn’t make it to the federal government.  As we reported here, Gov. Jerry Brown waited until the eleventh hour to finalize the application and sign off on it.

In a statement released this morning, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said, “this grant will help more California children get good care and a good start at learning, which we know is key to their long-term success, at school and beyond.”

Initiative: $10B for K-12, preschool

An initiative that would raise $10 billion for K-12 education and preschools by raising the state income tax, primarily on the rich, will be submitted to the Attorney General’s office for review this week, the first step for placing it on the November 2012 ballot. The initiative would target low-income students, who’d get a larger piece of the funding.

The Advancement Project, a national civil rights organization that’s been active in California, is sponsoring the initiative. Its primary creator and financier at this point is Molly Munger, a wealthy Los Angeles civil rights attorney who co-founded the Advancement Project. The daughter of Charles Munger, Warren Buffett’s investment partner and vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, she says she and others will put up the millions of dollars needed to qualify and promote it. The California State PTA has already endorsed it exclusively – ahead of other tax initiatives for schools that are being floated about.

Despite a flagging economy and an unemployment rate stubbornly in the double digits, supporters of more money for schools say they’re heartened by recent polls showing Californians are disturbed by severe cuts to public schools and are willing to pay higher taxes. That includes one by pollster Mark Mellman for the Advancement Project that found that 57 percent of very likely voters would favor its plan, with a third of respondents opposed and 9 percent undecided, a result that “stunned” her and “suggests a once in a generation opportunity,” Munger said.

Last week the Think Long Committee for California, a tax reform group led by billionaire Nicolas Berggruen, also floated a plan to raise an additional $10 billion, but only $5 billion would go to K-12 schools and community colleges, and it would do so primarily by extending the sales tax to services, from car washes to attorney fees, while lowering the personal and corporate income tax rates.

The state’s 5 percent personal income tax raises about $50 billion; Munger’s plan would bring in an additional 20 percent by raising the rate an average of 1 percentage point. But it would keep the current system’s progressivity, so 92 percent of the extra money would be paid by families earning more than $70,000, with 50 percent, or $5 billion, coming from those earning more than $300,000, Munger said. For those couples with taxable income above $5 million, the marginal tax rate would rise 2.2 percentage points to 12.5 percent; they’d pay the most.

The personal income tax has fueled growth in state spending, but it’s a volatile tax, tied to the stock options and fortunes of a sliver of rich Californians. That’s why tax reformers behind Think Long want to broaden the sales tax.

Munger’s plan would take a different approach to leveling the roller coaster ride. Annual revenue that exceeds the increase in the average per capita income in the state would be set aside to pay down the state’s debt for school bonds, which accounts for about half of the state’s indebtedness, she said. That should free up money for future needs.

Money to follow the student

Between property taxes and the state’s general fund, about $45 billion funds Proposition 98 K-12 spending, so Munger’s plan would immediately boost money for schools by nearly 20 percent (community colleges would not be included) . However, the new revenue would go into a separate fund, protected from the Governor’s and Legislature’s subverting Prop 98 and finagling with its arcane rules.

Fifteen percent of the $10 billion would go toward supporting and expanding early childhood and preschool programs, which currently reach only 30 to 40 percent of qualified children, according to a summary of the initiative (the exact wording wasn’t yet available). The remaining 85 percent, or $8.5 billion, would be divvied up as follows:

  • 70 percent of the total in a flat grant per public school student, including students in charter schools, with middle school students getting 20 percent more than elementary school students and high school students getting 40 percent more – reflecting the higher cost of educating older students;
  • 18 percent would provide additional per capita money (about $670) for low-income students eligible for federal Title I aid;
  • 12 percent per student funding for instructional materials, school site technology, and teacher training.

The initiative will state that the new money is not to be used to increase school salaries and benefits; no more than 1 percent can be used for administration.

The money-follows-the-student formula, weighted toward the poor, combines elements of transparency and equity that school finance reformers have been clamoring for. Schools will be required to show how the extra revenue has been used, and the information will be posted on a state Department of Education website, Munger said; parents will then know if districts have heeded their recommendations on how the money should be used in their children’s schools, such as to restore arts, hire more teachers to reduce class sizes, expand STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) offerings.

Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, who chairs the Assembly Education Committee, has similar elements in AB 18, the main finance reform bill that will be worked on next year.

The initiative would begin the transformation, Munger said. “When the model is out there, it gives a push to change the larger finance structure without piling it all in one ballot initiative.”

Hers and Think Long’s are two of several education initiatives that could collide on next November’s ballot. Gov. Brown and the California Teachers Association have yet to announce  their plan to raise money for K-12. A proposal to tax oil and natural gas production, with money to K-12 and higher education, is gathering signatures.

Some tax advocates are hoping proponents will split their differences and put one initiative on the ballot that business, labor, and education reformers can agree on.

For her part, Munger said she’s open to talk in the next month and a half, while her initiative awaits the AG’s review. But she and supporters don’t want to substitute a progressive tax – the personal income tax – for a divisive, more regressive tax, she said. “We are pleased with a proposal that seems to be most reflective of what voters want to do this year,” she said.

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.

Down to wire on Race to Top

With applications due in Washington a week from tomorrow, Gov. Jerry Brown still hasn’t decided whether to let California apply for the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge. But, with Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson four-square behind it, the state Department of Education is preparing an application on the assumption – or at least the hope – that Brown will sign on.

Race to the Tots, as I call it, is a $700 million competition in which California could snare as much as $100 million to expand the quantity and improve the quality of its preschool and early learning programs. Early education advocates have called on the state to use the potential money for two priorities:

  • To test a Quality Rating and Improvement System, a rubric to create consistency and uniformity in evaluating the effectiveness of – and potentially to differentiate funding for – preschool programs.
  • To develop the curriculum and teacher training for transitional kindergarten, an innovative two-year program for late-birthday 4-year-olds that California will phase in starting next fall.

As with all variations of Race to the Top, the state needs the signatures of Brown, Torlakson, and State Board of Education President Michael Kirst. Only Torlakson has made his views known so far.

Sue Burr, executive director of the State Board, said that the final rules allowed more flexibility for the states to design their proposals, but the application is still prescriptive. Brown remains concerned that the Obama administration will require commitments from the state extending beyond when the funding runs out. If the state does move forward, California will give counties and regions with innovative early learning programs – Los Angeles, Fresno, and Santa Clara County, to name a few – latitude to serve their own residents, without interference from the state. The federal government should recognize California’s diversity, she said.

An application that satisfies Brown’s concerns, however, may not be strong in the eyes of the RTTT judges, who may want assurances that federal dollars will have a lasting effect and create statewide changes.

Burr said that in creating the RTTT application, the Department of Ed has been helped by members of the former Early Learning Advisory Council, which Brown eliminated in the current budget. As part of the competition application, California would have to agree to reestablish the advisory council in some form, Burr acknowledged.

California is also eligible, along with eight other states, to apply for the third round of the original Race to the Top competition. The seven districts that led the nearly successful second round have expressed interest in pursuing that opportunity, for about $50 million, through a nonprofit they formed, the California Office to Reform Education (CORE).

The application for that isn’t due until December, and final rules have yet to be set. Burr said that the Brown administration has similar concerns about making state commitments for money it doesn’t have. It hasnt signaled to the CORE districts whether they should start work on the application, Burr said.