California legislators aim for fewer 4-year-olds in kindergarten

05.12.2010 | Early Ed Watch | Linda Jacobson

Today we feature a guest post from Linda Jacobson, veteran education reporter and author of our policy paper, “On the Cusp in California.” Her last post, focused on Los Angeles, provided a glimpse of  changes to come at Head Start.
For years, California lawmakers and education groups have tried and failed to change the state’s rules about how old children must be before starting kindergarten. They have wanted to move what is known as the “kindergarten cut-off date” to earlier in the year so that more children pass their 5th birthday by the time they start elementary school.
They’re trying again, and exactly how they do it could have implications for the number of children who experience preschool and other early learning programs.
A bill currently in the state Senate would gradually move the cut-off date from Dec. 2 — one of the latest in the country — to Sept. 1. It’s a move that would save the cash-starved state millions of dollars by reducing the number of students in the class of 2025.  A similar bill has been introduced by state Assemblyman Tony Mendoza.
In its report, “On the Cusp in California: How PreK-3rd Strategies Could Improve Education in the Golden State,” the New America Foundation explored this issue and its impact on expanding early learning opportunities for more of California’s young children.
Many early learning experts say that the cut-off date makes little difference in later student achievement, and that teachers will always have roughly a one-year age span in their classrooms.
But many California kindergarten teachers have long said that children who are still 4 when the school year starts are not ready to meet the state’s expectations for early math, literacy and social skills by the end of the school year.
Still, there have always been concerns about moving the cutoff date earlier because of the impact on children who do not have access to a quality preschool experience. Consider a little boy who turns 5 on November 1st. Under current California law, that child would be eligible to start kindergarten months before he turns 5. But under the state Senate’s bill, that child would need to wait a year, essentially prolonging the amount of time that he might go without a high-quality learning environment to help him develop his language and early math skills and social-emotional competence. (Even once he arrives in kindergarten, gaps remain because while some districts have implemented full-day kindergarten, most still only offer half-day programs.)
Instead of simply moving up the cut-off date and leaving children out, Preschool California, an advocacy group, favors the approach being taken by the Los Angeles Unified School District. This fall, the district will begin a two-year “transition kindergarten” for children turning 5 between June 1 and the current cutoff date of Dec. 2.  (For more detail, see the post earlier this week in the Educated Guess blog.) One site will be launched in each of the school system’s eight local districts. A few other California districts are trying similar programs in an effort to build some pre-academic skills while still supporting children’s social and emotional growth.
It sounds, however, as if the Senate bill’s sponsor, Sen. Joe Simitian, has been paying attention to some of the concerns about an earlier cut-off date hurting disadvantaged children. His plan would direct half of the projected $700 million in savings to preschool programs, enabling more children to receive the early learning experiences they need to be prepared for school.
The “On the Cusp” report did not make a recommendation on moving the cut-off date. But it does offer several recommendations on how to strengthen early learning experiences for children in these early years whether they are in preschool, kindergarten or the early grades. If the cut-off date changes, state education officials might want to consult this and other documents.
It will be interesting to see whether this is the year the state finally joins the 35 states with cut-off dates between Aug. 31 and Oct. 16. The Senate bill is on hold in the Appropriations committee and has to be voted on by May 28th in order to move forward. The Assembly bill sponsored by Mendoza has also been referred to Appropriations and is scheduled for a hearing today. If one passes, it would need to be signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to become law.

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