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Governor’s budget proposal may affect future of transitional kindergarten

03.10.2016 | EdSource | Susan Frey

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After years of effort to implement transitional kindergarten, Gov. Jerry Brown wants to eliminate the requirement that school districts offer the program, which provides an extra year of public school for 4-year-olds with fall birthdays. His proposal would also allow districts that offer it to charge enrollment fees for parents who aren’t low-income.

The proposal, which is part of the 2016-17 state budget, creates uncertainty for the future of transitional kindergarten. Many early education advocates saw it as a first step toward establishing a publicly funded program for all 4-year-olds. Just this past year, legislators allowed districts to expand the program to younger 4-year-olds, with some funding restrictions. And a recent research report found the program was effective in preparing students for kindergarten.

“The governor’s proposal comes squarely in the face of a fully implemented program that no one wants to give up,” said Erin Gabel, deputy director of external and governmental affairs at First 5 California. “Eliminating it as an entitlement with a stable funding source is a step backwards.”

Brown wants to combine funding for transitional kindergarten and for low-income students attending state preschools into one $1.6 billion early learning block grantthat must be used to provide pre-K programs for low-income students. The amount is the same as in last year’s budget with an additional 3 percent cost-of-living increase.

“Transitional kindergarten provides services for children in a narrow age window, regardless of their family’s income or need for additional services,” according to the 2016-17 state budget proposal. The proposal would “better target services to low-income and at-risk children and their families,” the budget states, and would “result in greater local financial flexibility.”

Currently, school districts receive transitional kindergarten funding for children who turn 5 in the fall based on enrollment in the program regardless of family income. Under Brown’s plan, state funds for the new block grant could be used only for programs for low-income children and it would be up to districts to define that income level. Future funding would follow Local Control Funding Formula rules, with more funding going to districts with higher concentrations of low-income students and English learners.

Districts would decide how to use the money they receive for those students. A district could eliminate its transitional kindergarten program and focus on preschool, offer it for only low-income students, or keep its current program and use other funds to pay for higher-income students. If the governor’s plan is adopted, the Department of Finance is suggesting that the state take a year to transition to the new funding system.

In 2010, California passed the Kindergarten Readiness Act, which moved back the cutoff birthdate for kindergarten from Dec. 2 to Sept. 1 and allowed the older 4-year-olds – those born from Sept. 2 through Dec. 2 – to still attend public school by enrolling in transitional kindergarten. The transitional kindergarten program was phased in over three years and is now fully implemented.

Under a recent change in the law, districts can also expand the program to include younger 4-year-olds – those born after Dec. 2 – but districts do not receive state funding until those children turn 5. Currently, districts receive funds for transitional kindergarten students based on the average daily attendance in those classes, as they do for other students in the K-12 system.

The governor’s proposal is an effort to channel funding currently going to higher-income families to those children most at risk and in need of a quality preschool program, said H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the California Department of Finance. He said districts could charge families who aren’t low-income a fee, similar to fees charged for state preschool during the recession. But officials from several districts have said they don’t plan to pursue that option.

While the governor’s proposal says the priority should be children with the most needs, many early education advocates see it differently.

“It’s not fair to take money from one set of kids to pay for another set of kids,” said Khydeeja Alam Javid, a lobbyist with the Advancement Project, a national civil rights organization active in California. “You’re creating friction between low-income and not-so-low-income families – that’s a new low for a progressive state.”

Some higher-income parents say they would be willing to pay for a quality transitional kindergarten program if it would better prepare their child for kindergarten.

Beenish Tasawwar, a middle-class mother who lives in Manteca in San Joaquin County, has a daughter with an October birthday, so she would qualify for transitional kindergarten under the current program. If Brown’s plan is enacted and she loses her eligibility, Tasawwar said she would be willing to pay for transitional kindergarten if the program was a good one. She currently is paying for preschool.

“Quality would be everything to me,” she said. “If the cost is similar to what I am paying now, pay would be the last thing I would look at.”

Other parents, such as Anna Levine, whose son would be eligible for transitional kindergarten in three years under the current program, have mixed feelings.

The Oakland parent says she opposes the proposal and is disheartened that the program as it is currently operating might end. But in her work as an attorney for the nonprofit Child Care Law Center in San Francisco, she also understands the need for the state to focus funding on the lowest-income families.

“I don’t think it’s a terrible thing in general to ask middle-class families to pay for transitional kindergarten,” Levine said. “I’m willing to pay something, and maybe there are creative ways to supplement funding.”

The transitional kindergarten program has received a positive evaluation from the American Institutes for Research, which found that children who had attended transitional kindergarten had stronger language, literacy and math skills compared with slightly younger 4-year-olds who weren’t in the program. They also were better at remembering classroom rules and controlling impulses.

“This unique approach to early education in California – which serves children in a narrow age range on elementary school campuses, with credentialed teachers holding bachelor’s degrees and a curriculum aligned with kindergarten – appears to better prepare students for kindergarten than what they might have received in the absence of the program,” according to the report.

In its analysis of the governor’s proposal, the Legislative Analyst’s Office is recommending that, from an equity standpoint, the state define low-income, rather than rely on districts to come up with their own definition. For state preschool, a family of three must earn $42,500 a year or less to be considered low-income, which is much too low, advocates say.

“Child care doesn’t suddenly become affordable when you make $43,000 a year,” Gabel said.

Brown’s proposal does not preclude districts from using other funds – including parent fees – to supplement a transitional kindergarten program for higher-income parents. However, many district leaders say they would not charge parents for the program.

Chris Steinhauser, superintendent of Long Beach Unified, said that he supports the block grant, “but we wouldn’t have our middle-class families pay.”

Anne Zemen, who is in charge of curriculum and instruction for elementary schools at Twin Rivers Unified in Sacramento, said the overall proposal is interesting “but I can’t imagine we would entertain charging middle-income parents. They are economically challenged already.”

Craig Wells, assistant superintendent of human resources at Stockton Unified in San Joaquin County, said most of the families in his district are low-income and setting up a payment structure and collecting fees would not be worthwhile.

He said he is also philosophically opposed. “I’m in favor of universal preschool,” he said, “and this is antithetical to that.”

Amy Slavensky oversees transitional kindergarten as the early childhood education director at San Juan Unified in Sacramento. She said she likes that the governor’s proposal provides more flexibility, one of the purposes of moving to increase local district control of funding. But she is not supportive of charging families.

“It’s a matter of integrity,” Slavensky said. “If we’re doing what’s right or best for families, how does it make sense to take it away or charge for it?”

Slavensky said her district of about 49,000 students would be able to manage a redesign of transitional kindergarten and preschool. But, she said, “a small or mid-sized district might just drop it.”

This is not the first time transitional kindergarten has been part of the budget discussion. In 2012, Brown wanted to end the program to pump more funds into a struggling K-12 school system. But legislators resisted, and no change was made to the program.

Joe Simitian, now on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, was the state senator who authored the Kindergarten Readiness Act. He said he finds it frustrating that the issue is being brought up again.

“We made the decision not once, but twice,” he said. “When are we going to let parents and districts move forward and enjoy the benefits of transitional kindergarten?”

State Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, is currently the point person for legislators on this issue.

“There are a lot of public policy implications,” he said of Brown’s budget proposal. “I welcome the conversation. It’s a weighty and a meaty issue with lots of subplots.”

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