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.

Kindergarten for all comes of age

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Organized opponents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”