Brown budget could increase class sizes and exclude tens of thousands from kindergarten

01.06.2012 | EdSource | Louis Freedberg

Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed education budget calls for phasing out one of California’s oldest and most popular school reform programs—the state’s K-3 class size reduction program—and postponing, perhaps indefinitely, the rollout of its newest, a “transitional kindergarten” program for 4-year-olds.

Some of his proposals have raised alarm bells among some lawmakers and child advocates, an indication that his budget plan is far from being a done deal, and that key portions could face stiff resistance in the Legislature.

His budget calls for a dramatic change in how schools are funded, including eliminating designated funds for the “vast majority” of “categorical” programs, except those mandated by the federal government. These are changes that over the years have in some form been broached by a range of educators, policy analysts, and lawmakers. (Brown’s proposal is closely based on a 2007 report co-authored by Michael Kirst, President of the State Board of Education.)

But in many districts these changes could hasten the end of the state’s class size reduction program, which was based on the premise that children do better academically if taught in classrooms with fewer students. The program, begun in 1996, was intended to keep class sizes to 20 students per teacher.

Brown has also proposed to defer the launch of a new “transitional kindergarten” program designed to provide an additional year of kindergarten to children who only turn 5 between Sept. 1 and Dec. 1, but have traditionally been able to attend regular kindergarten classes. Currently, unlike in most other states, children in California who are 4 years old in September, but turn 5 by December 2,  can enroll in traditional kindergarten.

Under the Kindergarten Readiness Act (Senate Bill 1381) authored by state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, beginning this fall children who only turn 5 by November 1 would have had the choice of attending a “transitional kindergarten” class, in addition to a regular kindergarten class the following year.

The program is based on the premise that younger children can lag behind their older peers and need an extra year of preparation for regular kindergarten, which in recent decades has become increasingly academically oriented. (For a fuller description of the program, see this previous EdSource post.)

By postponing the launch this year, Brown’s budget projects a savings of $223 million. But Simitian and others say that would mean some 40,000 4-year-olds who would normally have enrolled in kindergarten this fall (the November 1 through December  2 cohort) would be barred from doing so, and will have to wait another year before being eligible for regular kindergarten classes.

The program was supposed to have been phased in over the next three years. Simitian noted that if the Brown administration’s proposal went into effect, it could have multiple and perhaps unintended consequences: Some 125,000 children, who under current law would have been eligible to enroll in kindergarten, would be barred from doing so;  already struggling school districts would lose the funding of approximately $6,000 per child they currently receive from the state for each of those children; and thousands of kindergarten teachers would have to be laid off.

“Telling parents of 125,000 children to find additional child care, or stay at home to look after their children during the worst recession in a half century is a non-starter,” Simitian said in an interview. He also noted that the Legislature would have to approve legislation to cancel the launch of the transitional kindergarten program, which he felt was an unlikely prospect.

The state’s class size reduction program was initiated by then Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, in an almost forgotten era of fiscal plenty when the state enjoyed a surplus. Under Brown’s proposal, districts would still be allowed to keep class sizes small in elementary grades if they chose to do so and could afford to pay for the extra costs. But the essential point is that they would be allowed to spend the substantial subsidies—over $1,000 per student—they had been receiving from the state for other purposes.

During the past three years, school districts have been given new flexibility to increase class size without losing all of their subsidy. What has become clear is that a growing number of districts have used this flexibility to raise class sizes, in many cases increasing enrollments to 30 students in some or all of K-3 grades.

That seems like an option that Brown is ready to live with, as he argued for devolving as much control as possible to local school districts. “If they think they can save some money by adding a few kids to classes, then they should be able to do that,” he said yesterday.

To see the entire budget proposal, go to the governor’s website.

California Governor Jerry Brown

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