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.

A win for Transitional Kindergarten

Gov. Brown’s latest proposal to eliminate Transitional Kindergarten hit a wall yesterday in the state Assembly. By a 3-to-1 vote along party lines, the budget subcommittee on education finance rejected the governor’s plan.

“Eliminating the TK mandate would be a huge step backward for the state and early education,” said subcommittee chair Susan Bonilla, a Contra Costa County Democrat, citing research on the benefits of giving not quite five-year-olds a year of kindergarten readiness. “We expect to see lower retention rates, less remediation, fewer special education placements, and higher test scores,” she said.

State Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), who introduced the bill that created TK in 2010, said the action by the subcommittee sends a strong message that he hopes will “reduce the level of anxiety among parents and district administrators throughout the state” who have been left with great uncertainty about the future of the program.

Ever since Gov. Brown released his first budget plan for 2012-13, he’s been floating various proposals to get rid of TK, making it something of a moving target that has changed from week to week.

As a result, some districts have held off on planning for TK or enrolling students for next year’s program out of concern that the state won’t fund the program.

I’m confused and frustrated because the district keeps saying TK is coming, but doesn’t say when,” Elizabeth Ruiz, a registered nurse and the mother of twins in the Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District, told members of the subcommittee, struggling through a bout of laryngitis. Her children turn four in October and will miss the new kindergarten cutoff by nine days. Unless her district implements TK, Ruiz said, she’ll have to keep the twins at home for a year, under her mother’s care. “I cannot afford $1600 a month for private preschool,” explained Ruiz.

Parents (l to r) Felicia Jones, Elizabeth Gonzalez-Ruiz, Jennifer Roggia and Melissa Vernon testified, urging subcommittee to keep TK intact. (Photo by Baron) Click to enlarge.
Parents (l to r) Felicia Jones, Elizabeth Gonzalez-Ruiz, Jennifer Roggia and Melissa Vernon testified, urging subcommittee to keep TK intact. (Photo by Baron) Click to enlarge.

Nearly two dozen parents, teachers, child care workers, and advocates packed the small hearing room to testify. All but the private child care providers urged the panel to keep the TK law intact.

Tuesday’s vote spelled relief for parents Jennifer Roggia and Melissa Vernon, who each has a son in a pilot TK program run by Gilroy Unified School District. Each mom has younger children and feared the district would end the pilot if the governor’s trailer bill succeeded.

Both said their boys have matured socially and academically after just a few months in the program.

“Unless you have a child in the program or have a child that age you don’t understand,” said Roggia. “We see the benefits in our kids.”

Vernon agreed. Now that her son has adjusted to the social world of school, he’s starting to learn academics, like basic math. She sees TK as a question of equity for families like hers and Ruiz’s who can’t afford private preschool and don’t qualify for a state subsidy. “Each kid deserves the same starting point,” said Vernon.

Now that the governor’s proposal is off the table in the Assembly, it heads to the state Senate. If it dies there, it’s a good bet that TK will survive. However, the governor could still include another variation in his May revise budget plan, or try to get it reconsidered when the budget goes to the conference committee, said a spokesperson for Sue Burr, Gov. Brown’s key education adviser.

Sen. Simitian suggested that two thumbs down in the state Legislature should send a signal to the governor. “I would be pleased if the administration would withdraw the proposal.”

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.”

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.”

Low-income schools shortchanged

Being proven right is usually a cause for some self-satisfaction, but U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was troubled Wednesday when he announced results of a new Department of Education study on Title I and other high-poverty schools.

“Today, we’re releasing key findings that confirm an unfortunate reality in our nation’s education system,” said Duncan during a phone call with journalists. “Many public schools serving low-income children aren’t getting their fair share of state and local funding.” (Read Duncan’s entire statement here.)

Unequal spending on salaries in Title I schools. (Source:  U.S. Dept. of Education). Click to enlarge.
Unequal spending on salaries in Title I schools. (Source: U.S. Dept. of Education). Click to enlarge.

By “many” Duncan means a lot. More than 40 percent of Title I schools spent less per student on salaries than non-Title I schools within the same district, according to the first-of-its-kind study. U.S. Department of Education researchers examined teacher salaries and spending on other resources for more than 13,000 school districts across the country. Schools had to submit the information as a requirement for receiving funds under the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

Of California’s 10,000 or so schools, well over 6,000 receive funds from the federal Title I program to provide additional support for children considered at risk due to poverty. The Department of Education’s report came one day after the U.S. Census Bureau released new figures showing that more than one in five U.S. children live in poverty, an increase of over a million children between 2009 and 2010.

Under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA is the previous and soon to be subsequent name of No Child Left Behind), schools eligible for Title I funding first have to receive state and local funding that’s comparable to the amount given to non-Title I schools. Since about 80 percent of funding goes to salaries, it should be simple to calculate. However, the definition of comparability was compromised by a loophole in Title I language that allows reporting by district-wide salary averages rather than by individual schools.

Here’s the legalese version as written in the law (a note of caution: skip this if you’re prone to dizziness):

(B) Determinations – For the purpose of this subsection, in the determination of expenditures per pupil from State and local funds, or instructional salaries per pupil from State and local funds, staff salary differentials for years of employment shall not be included in such determinations.

The loophole makes it nearly impossible for the U.S. Department of Education to know whether districts are giving Title I schools at least an equal amount of state and local funds as the rest of the schools in the district.

“In far too many places Title I money is filling budget gaps rather than being used to close achievement gaps,” said Duncan.

That would change if the reauthorization of ESEA authored by U.S. Senators Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Mike Enzi (R-Wyoming) makes it through Congress. They’ve inserted language to close the loophole.

California takes the lead

In its usual ambivalent fashion, California is a bit ahead of the rest of the nation in requiring better reporting, but is not doing so well in ensuring that the data is accurate and uniform. In 2005, California passed SB 687, the first law in the country requiring every district to report per-pupil spending annually – including teacher salaries – on a school-by-school basis. The bill, by State Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), amended the School Accountability Report Card, or SARC: detailed reports containing demographics and other information that every school must complete and make public.

One problem with SARC, said attorney John Affeldt with Public Advocates, is that the State Department of Education has not provided clear guidance on the reporting categories. In a report he co-authored on SB 687, titled “Lifting the Fog of Averages,” one example, said Affeldt, is that while some districts include librarians in the same group as teachers, others put librarians in a different pot. And when counting people who work at more than one school, such as custodians and resource specialists, some districts will divvy up the salary among all the schools, while others make it a district expenditure.

“A key next step for federal and state policy is to move toward having all districts follow the same decision rules in accounting for expenditures,” said Affeldt. “That way, we will finally be able to compare school-level spending across districts and even across states.”

For now, the ambiguity in the law, especially in Title I, allows districts to continue the practice of putting the lowest-paid

Salary gaps can reach nearly $4,000 in districts with large ranges in poverty levels. (Source: Center for American Progress). Click to enlarge.
Salary gaps can reach nearly $4,000 in districts with large ranges in poverty levels. (Source: Center for American Progress). Click to enlarge.

teachers, i.e., the least experienced, to work in the highest-poverty schools.

California Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica) is attempting to take SB 687 a step or two further.  Her bill, AB 18, would create a weighted student funding formula that would give schools more money for each low-income child enrolled.  AB 18 is on a two-year track, and should be taken up in the next legislative session.

But Duncan insists that states and districts don’t need to rewrite their funding formulas to abide by the intent of Title I.  Most districts would have to change only 1 to 4 percent of their total school-level expenditures in order to provide comparable funding for their Title I and high-poverty schools, said Duncan.  But that small shift could be huge for Title I schools, bringing an increase in funding of between 4 and 15 percent.

The U.S. Department of Education has put a searchable database on line for educators, parents, policymakers and anyone in the public to see how their local districts stack up in funding high-poverty schools.  From there, Duncan said he hopes to get a national conversation going. Only Congress can change the actual law, said Duncan, but that doesn’t mean that school districts can’t start doing the right thing.

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”

State Auditor: CalSTRS is a high risk

State Auditor Elaine Howle has added the teachers’ pension fund, CalSTRS, to the state’s high-risk list, adding urgency to the imperative to reduce taxpayers’ liability for the nation’s largest education pension fund. The release of Howle’s periodic update of financial worries comes on the eve of the final showdown on a  significant pension reform before the Legislature, an anti-spiking bill sponsored by Sen. Joe Simitian, a Palo Alto Democrat.

Passage of SB 27 by itself won’t make a huge dent in the problem. But the bill deals with what Simitian calls “low-hanging fruit.” Spiking – the practice of jacking up employees’ pay in their final year with the intent of increasing their annual pensions – is an abuse of the system that harms taxpayers and other pensioners.

“If we (the Legislature) cannot come to grips with pension spiking, then  how can we deal with larger reform issues?” Simitian said last night.

Though proposals and voter initiatives for major changes in public pension systems have been floated, none are live now. Gov. Jerry Brown may have come close to reaching a deal with Republicans in the Legislature on pension reform in exchange for a public vote on higher taxes, but Republicans walked away from it, and Brown hasn’t yet said what his ideas are – or when he will offer them.

The clock is ticking. At a time when K-12 schools and higher ed are desperate to restore money that’s been cut, the Legislature faces the prospect of raising additional subsidies of hundreds of millions to several billion dollars per year to make CalSTRS whole. That’s because  CalSTRS’ defined benefit program – the primary retirement fund for its 852,000 members – has not recovered from the 30 percent drop in value of its portfolio in 2008, when the stock market tumbled. Though it has had two fine years, with returns of 13 percent and 23 percent, the defined benefit program “is currently funded at 71 percent, well below the 80 percent considered necessary to fund a sound pension program,” Howle’s report said. The formula for funding the program  – taking 8 percent of an employee’s salary, matched by 8.25 percent from the district and  4.25 percent from the state and counting on investment returns to make up the difference – hasn’t been changed in 35 years. Unless it’s changed, or the Legislature cuts benefits by extending the retirement age and the payout, taxpayers will get socked. (Correction: The total state match is 4.5 percent of payroll, not 4.25 percent. This consists of two programs, 2 percent directly toward the defined benefit program and 2.5 percent toward a separate inflation adjustment program, the Supplemental Benefit Maintenance Account).

Last stop for SB 27

Simitian’s bill unanimously passed the Senate and the Assembly Committee on Public Employees, Retirement and Social Security. But at a hearing this week  before the Assembly Appropriations Committee, the last stop before a full vote in the Assembly, a dozen or so public employee groups testified against either parts of or the full bill.

SB 27 has two primary provisions. One would would ban an employee from returning to work as a contractor or full-time worker for 180 days after retirement. The intent is to thwart double-dipping, receiving a public paycheck and a pension simultaneously immediately on retirement. Unlike private industry, in which executives train their successors before they retire, some districts and municipalities have rehired administrators at their pre-retirement salaries, saddling the public with triple pay: the salaries of the new executive and the previous one, along with the full retirement benefit. The bill wouldn’t prevent rehiring a teacher to be a mentor or sub, but that would have to wait for half a year.

The second provision would redefine what income qualified for determining a defined benefit pension (not car allowances, sick and vacation pay, or district-paid insurance premiums) and would exclude from pension calculations any raise exceeding 25 percent during the final five years of employment. That wouldn’t prevent promoting an administrator to a key position, with a fat pay boost; however, the excess amount wouldn’t count toward inflating a pension. (It, along with other non-qualified compensation, would count toward a supplemental program, which doesn’t involve a state match and is paid out as a lump sum amount – still a sweet deal.)

Simitian’s bill would apply to both current employees and new workers; that’s the only way to start getting real savings. The CalSTRS board and the California Teachers Association are opposing the bill unless it exempts current employees, who, they argue, have a vested right to all current benefits. They also want to replace Simitian’s spiking formula with what they argue is a simpler alternative that’s less expensive to administer: capping income qualifying for a defined benefit pension at $147,000. Remuneration in excess of that would count toward the supplement program only. Most if not all teachers earn less than $147,000.

“Unfortunately, the fact that CalSTRS specified that these amendments apply to future members has caused some to falsely assume that CalSTRS is only interested in protecting the status quo when our position is actually a function of recognizing the legal limitations of what can and cannot be done,” Ed Derman, Deputy Chief Executive Officer for Plan Design and Communication at CalSTRS wrote this week in a column in Capitol Weekly.

Whether any chance in benefits can be imposed by the Legislature on current CalSTRS employees is disputable. SB 27 would provide an early and important test. The bill has been written to continue to apply to new workers, even if  a court overturns the application to current workers.  That reduces the risk of litigation.

Simitian also said he is not enthusiastic about accepting an amendment that would sanction pension spiking for more modestly paid employees, such as lower salaried administrators and teachers who are rewarded with  promotions with big pay in their final year before retirement. The amount may be smaller, but the principle is the same: It’s wrong and potentially expensive.

Derman also argues that a cap would not preclude CalSTRS from imposing additional oversight procedures to root out spiking; the CalSTRS board has ordered further safeguards. But Simitian said that the way to guarantee lasting oversight is through statute.

(Both Simitian and CalSTRS have points, so I say why not amend the bill to include both the cap on defined benefits for new employees and future earnings for current employees  as well as the anti-spiking provisions for workers earning under the cap. That would yield the biggest savings.)

SB 27 is now “in suspense” in the Assembly Appropriations Committee, where many good bills die a silent, mysterious death. Whether it gets out and is sent to the Assembly, where it likely would pass, will be decided by Chairman Felipe Fuentes, or through horse trading between Speaker John Perez and Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, both Democrats.

They must decide by Thursday.

Battle over pension spiking bill

The California Teachers Association and the state teachers retirement system are pushing for significant changes to SB 27, Sen. Joe Simitian’s bill that would prevent “spiking,” the practice of larding on compensation near retirement to boost a public employee’s pension – a practice that is drawing increasing scrutiny. It also would limit the types of compensation that would be used in calculating a standard pension.

The late-in-coming amendments pose a new challenge to the bill, which raced through the Senate without opposition, and could spur a larger discussion on pension changes. A similar bill by Simitian passed the Legislature last year but was vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger because it was tied to another pension bill that troubled him.

Simitian’s bill would apply to all current and future public workers. Any employee who received a pay increase of 25 percent or larger over the final five years of employment would automatically have the raise audited by the public pension system: CalSTRS in the case of educators. (Educators whose pay rose more than 25 percent in taking a job in another district would be excluded from an audit.)

Another provision, to thwart double-dipping – receiving a public paycheck and a pension simultaneously – would ban an employee from returning to work as a contract or full-time worker for 180 days after retirement.

The board of CalSTRS and the CTA want to limit SB 27 to future employees arguing that current workers have inviolable vested rights to benefits that have already been negotiated. Doing so, however, would substantially reduce immediate savings to the system at a time that CalSTRS is looking to the Legislature for a sizable boost in taxpayer subsidies because it has yet to recover from the stock market meltdown in 2008.

Proposed cap on pension benefits

CalSTRS and the teachers union are calling for a simpler – and more encompassing – way to deal with spiking: capping the amount of compensation that can be counted toward a defined benefit pension at $147,000 instead of requiring reviews. CalSTRS reports that, statewide, 1,600 administrators not covered by bargaining agreements earn more than $147,000; their compensation above that would be credited toward their individual defined benefit supplement accounts, which work like a 401(k) with a lower guaranteed rate of return, thus saving taxpayers money.

Doing it this way would exclude teachers, who rarely make as much as $147,000 and don’t get the kinds of perks that have led to spiking. SB 27 is aimed, in part, at school boards that have boosted the salaries of superintendents and high-ranking administrators through short-term promotions. A report in the Sacramento Bee found that nearly half of the 225 Sacramento retired educators with pensions above $100,000 got at least a 10 percent pay raise in one of their last three years. Depending on how long they’ve worked, employees’ pensions are based on either their highest-paying year or the average pay in their final three years.

Spiking has been an issue in municipal and county governments as well. In Contra Costa County, for example, two fire chiefs, ages 50 and 51, retired with pensions greater than their highest salaries.

Restrictions on qualifying compensation

Under Simitian’s bill, the value of non-salary income, like car allowances, life insurance, and unused vacation pay, would not count in determining a standard pension. This money would, however, be credited toward the supplemental program. To no surprise, the administrators’ lobby, the Association of California School Administrators, opposes the bill.

The only significant change for teachers is that unused sick pay would no longer boost years of sevice in pension calculations. It too would now be credited in the supplemental program. (Some readers will no doubt argue that, as in most private companies, unused sick pay shouldn’t count toward retirement benefits at all.)

The Pacific Research Institute estimated four years ago that pension spiking cost California taxpayers $100 million each year. CalSTRS estimates that SB 27 would yield savings of $10 million annually, but it also said that it would have to hire a dozen people to do the audits and spend $5 million to update a system to flag potential violations.

CalSTRS has been criticized recently for its failure to crack down on alleged spiking. This issue became public after CalSTRS executives fired Scott Thompson, a whistle blower whom they claimed lowered a pension without authorization and refused to restore it. Pension administrators recently told the CalSTRS board they planned to establish a new unit to review questionable compensation cases,  regardless of SB 27’s fate.

Simitian, a Palo Alto Democrat, told me that the existing system that permits padding “isn’t fair to taxpayers and to most employees who aren’t in a position to have their incomes spiked and rely on pension systems to be solvent. The status quo undermines public support for appropriate pensions that retirees rely on.”

A newly retired teacher last year earned an average pension of $49,000. Educators receiving six-figure pensions remain a small proportion of the 852,000 teachers and administrators served by CalSTRS, but the focus of public ire – or envy.

CalSTRS this month reported an impressive 23 percent return on investments for the year ending June 30, the best  in a quarter century. And it followed a 2010 return of 12.7 percent. But even so, CalSTRS, with $154 billion in assets, remains $25 billion below its peak in October 2007 – and only 70 percent funded. To become fully funded could require more than $2 billion in taxpayer subsidies, between additional school districts’ benefits contributions and the state general fund’s portion of retirement contributions.

Anti-spiking legislation, Simitian notes, “is the low-hanging fruit of pension reform. It should be easy.” He said he has not taken a position on the CalSTRS amendments.

Update: Education Week reports that other Legislatures are also curbing “double-dipping.”

Bill to impose cap on charters

Charter school supporters didn’t have to worry much about severe restrictions on their operations becoming law over the past seven years – not with Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor. But they’re less certain now, with Jerry Brown in the corner office. Even though Brown founded two charter schools in Oakland, to get his budget passed, Brown is leaning heavily on teachers and classified employees unions that are pushing some of the bills that the charter community fears the most.

Near the top of the list is AB 401, which would put a lid on charter growth and immediately impose a moratorium in Los Angeles and other urban districts that have been the most welcoming to charter schools. Democratic Assemblyman Tom Ammiano of San Francisco is the bill’s author; the California Federation of Teachers is the sponsor.

Last year, Ammiano’s  bill was passed by the Assembly only to get bottled up in the Senate. Back again this year, AB 401 is scheduled for a hearing before the Assembly Education Committee on Wednesday.

The bill would cap the number of authorized charters at 1,450, and limit that number until 2023. (A bill digest says the moratorium would end in 2017; I assume the bill’s language is the official version.)

There are currently 912 charters in operation. But although the cap is 538 schools away, charters have been expanding at a rate of more than 100 per year and show no sign, even in hard times, of slowing down. Charters affiliated with high-performing charter management organizations, like Aspire Public Schools and Rocketship Education, are among those with expansion plans.

But the bill also would limit the number of charters to no more than 10 percent  of the number of schools in a district; those districts that reach that threshold would no longer be able to authorize any more charters, as of July 2012. Jed Wallace, president of California Charter Schools Association, said that the limit already has been reached in San Diego, Oakland, and Los Angeles Unified districts. With 180 charter schools out of about 700 public schools, Los Angeles has the most charter schools of any district in the nation. Not only are charter schools obviously popular with parents, but recently teachers in several Los Angeles Unified schools, El Camino Real High in Woodland Hills the latest, have voted to convert to a charter school. Earlier this month school trustees, in the latest round of their school choice program, selected eight of the 11 applications submitted by charter school associations to run all or part of 13 new or existing low-performing schools. The bill would preempt that process and district policy.

School districts, by law, aren’t allowed to consider financial impact among the criteria in considering an application for charter. However, with school districts and charter schools possibly facing further budget cuts, school districts – and certainly unions – are worried about the loss of student tuitions to new charter schools. But Wallace argues that “the state should be encouraging great schools that are efficiently operated, so there should be a greater emphasis on charters.”

Ammiano’s bill also would ban nepotism in hiring in a charter, prohibiting the hiring of a relative by anyone in a decision-making authority.

Among the more credible bills dealing with charter schools are two that take different approaches to weeding out poor-performing charter schools – which many in the charter community acknowledge is needed.

Disagreements over accountability

Assembly Education Committee Chairwoman Julia Brownley has again introduced AB 440. Among its extensive provisions (many dealing with new auditing requirements), the bill would limit charter renewals to three years – instead of the customary five – for those charter schools that find themselves in School Improvement under the federal No Child Left Behind law. Schools that are in the fifth year of School Improvement would be denied a charter renewal.

SB 645, introduced by Sen. Joe Simitian, a Democrat from Palo Alto, would take an approach favored by the California Charter Schools Association. Charter schools up for renewal that fail to meet one of three criteria would have to go before the State Board of Education to justify their charter renewals with additional data. Those criteria are:

  • An API score of at least 700 in the most recent year;
  • A growth of at least 30 points in the API score in the past three years;
  • An API rank in at least the top 60 percent of schools with similar demographics.

The criteria would not apply to new charter schools and to those designated by the state as serving students with a high risk of dropping out. Excluding these schools, the Charter Schools Association says that 43 schools – 8½ percent of charters in operation – would fail the threshold (although only a small number of those would be up for renewal in a given year).

One opponent of both bills is Eric Premack, executive director of the Charter Schools Development Center in Sacramento. School Improvement status is a poor measure of school quality, he says, since most schools in California will end soon end up in School Improvement unless the law is revoked or changed. And he said that the minimum 700 API score and even the 30 point gain over three years will have the effect of encouraging charter schools, especially small schools with fluctuating API scores, to force out troubled and struggling students that many currently serve. There are more effective ways to hold charter schools accountable, according to Premack, who has been hired by school districts to do independent appraisals of charters up for renewal.