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Plan to scrap kindergarten program draws protest

01.13.2012 | Associated Press | Terence Chea

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — California educators and childcare advocates are
protesting Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to scrap a new program for children
who are no longer old enough for kindergarten.

In his plan to
close the state budget deficit, Brown proposes to cut funding for
“transitional kindergarten,” a new grade level created when Gov. Arnold
Schwarzenegger signed legislation that raised the starting age for
kindergarten.

Kellie Little, a salon owner who lives in Marin
County, said she was planning to send her son, who turns 5 in November,
to the new kindergarten program at her local public school.

“Now
I’m going to have to scramble to find another pre-K program,” Little
said. “It’s going to be even more expensive. It’s definitely something I
wasn’t budgeting for. I was planning to get my son into transitional
kindergarten.”

The 2010 Kindergarten Readiness Act pushes back the
date by which children must turn 5 to enter kindergarten from Dec. 2 to
Sept. 1. The change will be phased in one month at a time over three
years starting this fall.

The legislation established transitional
kindergarten for kids who don’t make the new cutoff date. The program
is to be taught by credentialed teachers and tailored to children who
would turn 5 in September, October and November.

The governor’s
plan would impact an estimated 40,000 children eligible for transitional
kindergarten this fall — and about 120,000 kids when the law takes full
effect in fall 2014.

Brown is seeking to close an estimated $9.2
billion budget deficit for 2012-2013 with a mix of temporary tax
increases and spending cuts to social services and education.

The
Democratic governor wants to save an estimated $224 million in the
coming fiscal year by not requiring districts to offer transitional
kindergarten. That savings would increase to $672 million in 2014-2015
when the kindergarten cutoff date is pushed back to Sept. 1.

“Given
the fiscal situation the state is in, we should not embark on this type
of a program expansion at this time,” said H.D. Palmer, Brown’s finance
spokesman. “This is one of the difficult decisions that was necessary
to close a budget gap of $9 billion.”

Advocates of transitional
kindergarten say the plan would shut thousands of children out of public
education, cost several thousand teacher jobs and hurt families that
can’t afford an extra year of childcare or preschool.

“It’s an
immense hardship on the families, and it’s not good for the kids,” state
Sen. Joe Simitian, who authored the 2010 law, said Friday. He and
preschool advocates spoke out against the governor’s proposal at the
annual gathering of the California Kindergarten Association in Santa
Clara.

California currently has one of the country’s latest cutoff
dates — about one-fourth of students are 4 when they start
kindergarten. Most states require students to be 5 to enroll.

Raising
the kindergarten age could lead to stronger academic performance,
higher graduation rates and fewer students needing to repeat grades or
take special-education classes, supporters say.

Many families hold
their children back a year to give them more time to get ready for
kindergarten, which has become more academically intensive in recent
years, but that isn’t an option for low-income families.

Parents
who believe their children are ready for kindergarten or can’t afford
another year of childcare can petition their districts to allow their
children to start school early, said Susan Burr, executive director of
the state Board of Education.

The proposal to eliminate the
mandate for transitional kindergarten is part of the governor’s plan to
give school districts more discretion over how they spend state
education funds, Burr said.

“These decisions are best made at the local level,” said Burr, who serves as Brown’s education policy advisor.

A coalition of educators, preschool advocates and lawmakers vowed to fight Brown’s kindergarten proposal.

“This
is a nonstarter,” said Catherine Atkin, executive director of the
advocacy group Preschool California. “This is not the time to move
backward in providing access to public education.”

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