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Proposed kindergarten cutoff date would mean some California kids start school later

08.24.2010 | Sacramento Bee | Susan Ferriss and Melody Gutierrez

For decades, millions of Californians with children who have fall birthdays have struggled over whether to pack their 4-year-olds off to kindergarten – or hold them back because they might be too young to start school.

This week, California state legislators may be the closest they’ve ever come to making that decision for parents, with room for some exceptions.

A bill by Sen. Joe Simitian, a Palo Alto Democrat, would roll back the date that entering kindergartners must turn 5 from the current Dec. 2 to Sept. 1.

In 2008, a Public Policy Institute of California review of 14 studies found that students who start kindergarten at older ages perform better on math and reading tests into eighth grade.

Educators hope the change in the age limit will reduce the number of children in special education and those who are held back, as well as help close the achievement gap that divides affluent and lower-income kids.

The change also has long been discussed as a cost-saving measure at the Capitol. Former Gov. Pete Wilson drew the ire of the California Teachers Association in 1992 when he proposed delaying the start of kindergarten that year for more than 100,000 children.

The latest proposal, Senate Bill 1381, would take about $700 million in savings – the result of having 100,000 fewer students each year – and use that money to fund mandatory new “transitional kindergartens.”

The transitional classes would be for children whose birthdays fall between the day after the new cutoff date and Dec. 2.

The change would be phased in, rolling the cutoff date back a month each year, over a three-year period.

The California Parent Teacher Association, the Association of California School Administrators and business interests now are rallying around Simitian’s bill, which could go to the Assembly for a vote this week.

The bill has already passed the Senate. But that version – which was presented as a budget-saving device as well as a good policy idea – was significantly different.

The original bill called for plowing half the savings into preschools and half back into the state’s depleted general fund – a proposal strongly opposed by the state PTA and the CTA.

The proposal has since been amended to include transitional kindergartens – which keeps the savings within the K-12 system – and the bill now has no organized opposition, Simitian said.

To address concerns that $700 million wouldn’t be enough to cover costs, children couldn’t repeat transitional kindergarten, and small districts that might only have a handful eligible for transitional classes could put them in a combination classroom.

The transitional kindergarten is a concept some school districts have already embraced – the classes are a precursor to kindergarten.

Educators believe that they would especially benefit kids whose families can’t afford preschool and who tend to enter kindergarten behind their peers.

“I think people are seeing this as a rare opportunity to do something good for kids at a time when there aren’t many opportunities,” Simitian said.

Debbie Look, director of legislation for the state PTA, said the PTA threw its support to Simitian’s bill once transitional kindergarten was included.

“Our feeling was these children would not necessarily benefit from a third of a year of preschool,” she said.

DeAnn Strangeland, an East Sacramento parent, has two daughters with birthdays that fall just short of the current Dec. 2 cutoff date.

In 2008, Strangeland exercised an option to hold one daughter, now 6, back from starting kindergarten.

“It proved to be a good decision for us. Things came a lot easier for her,” Strangeland said.

“She was getting the homework,” she added. “You want them to feel successful. I think she was ready the year before, but I think we made the right decision.”

Sacramento area kindergarten teacher Laura Bingham, who works at Regency Park Elementary School, called Simitian’s bill “an excellent idea.”

“We are required to have kindergartners reading at the end of kindergarten,” Bingham said. “It’s a huge developmental difference for them (4-year-olds) to come in with the skills some 5-year-olds already have.”

Simitian’s bill would make exceptions for 4-year-olds whose parents and schools believe they are ready to begin regular kindergarten.

The California Teachers Association, which has gone from opposition to a neutral stance on the bill, would prefer that bill include the option to place 5-year-olds who seem developmentally young in transitional classes.

“But we recognize there are cost pressures,” said CTA legislative advocate Jennifer Baker.

She said the CTA in general likes the idea of making Sept. 1 the cutoff date.

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