Not ready for kindergarten? Save California $700 million

08.13.2010 | New America Media | Deirdre Ruscitti

Teachers, legislators and educational experts have long agreed, almost unanimously, that the age children could enter California’s kindergartens needs to change. The current cutoff—any child who turned 5 on or before December 2 could enroll in kindergarten the preceding September—means that about a quarter of California’s kindergarteners are under 5 when they begin. These younger children tend to under-perform compared to their older peers. Changing the enrollment cutoff date to September 1, meaning every kindergartener would be at least 5 years old, could help ensure more children are prepared to begin their education, argue studies by groups such as the RAND Corporation and the Public Policy Institute of California. It would also save California millions of dollars when it is implemented because it would reduce the size of the student body. That has given a bill by State Senator Joe Simitian a new impetus.

Simitian’s SB 1381 has cleared the Senate and is awaiting approval in the Assembly. The bill has widespread support, in principle. “It would be more appropriate, especially for the boys,” said elementary schoolteacher Christine Hintzoglou about the September 1 cutoff. Hintzoglou, who has taught in the Mt. Diablo Unified School District for 20 years, said during her years as a kindergarten teacher, she would frequently run across students who, although legally able to begin school, were far from prepared. “People push their kids in when they’re not developmentally ready, because they’re age ready,” she said.

But there is a catch. It’s a question of money. Or more precisely it’s a question about what to do with the estimated $700 million California would save per year for the next 13 years as the smaller student cohort moves through the education system. Some people want it to stay in education, while some want to use it for other purposes, such as paying down the debt. These debates have killed 13 other attempts at reform over the last 18 years. The debate has been raging for so long that children born around the time of the first attempt are now graduating from high school.

SB 1381 would put all of the $700 million in savings per year into a pre-kindergarten summer program for the children deferred from kindergarten because of the bill. These pre-kindergarten programs would be planned by individual school districts.

SB 1381 did not always include a pre-kindergarten program. In its original form, SB 1381 planned to split the savings, sending half to education and half to pay down California’s deficit. The $350 million per year could not have fully funded the pre-kindergarten program that the amended bill will provide.

Funding the pre-kindergarten program has drawn mixed reactions from parents. “I think that would be awesome,” said Hintzoglou, who is also a parent. A pre-kindergarten program, she believes, would give parents who struggle to pay for childcare “a place for their kids to go,” so they no longer have to put children into kindergarten before they are ready in order to save money.

“It sounds like a great idea to me,” agreed Caroline Lee, another parent. Other parents, however, see the pre-kindergarten program as an overstep. “I think if they’re not ready to go into kindergarten, then it’s the parent’s responsibility,” said Rose Rad, a parent and volunteer Girl Scout leader. “It shouldn’t be a burden on the taxpayers.” Rad does support changing the cutoff date, noting that in her experience working with Girl Scouts, she has noticed that, “there is a huge difference between [ages] 4 and 5.”

The bill would also gradually phase in the age change, moving the enrollment date forward one month per year. In other words, if the bill becomes law, the enrollment date would change to November 1 for the 2012-13 school year. By the 2014-15 school year, the enrollment date would change to September 1, where it would stay.

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