Push for new kindergarten cutoff

04.16.2010 | Educated Guess | John Fensterwald

A Senate bill to move up the cutoff date for enrolling in kindergarten and to fund preschool with half of the savings has sailed through its first committee. But similar attempts have faltered, even though child advocates and developmental psychologists universally agree that it’s an educationally sound and fiscally smart idea.

California is one of only four states that allow some 4-year-olds to attend kindergarten. The cutoff date for turning five in California is Dec. 2.

Sen. Joe Simitian’s SB 1381 would gradually shift the date so that starting in 2014, a child would have to be 5 years old by Sept. 1 to be admitted to kindergarten.  Doing so would reduce enrollment by an estimated 100,000 children over the phase-in period and reduce the state’s kindergarten costs by $700 million. (That savings from that initially small class of kindergartners would follow as they went on through high school.)

If nothing else, just delaying kindergarten would benefit 4-year-olds struggling to keep up. But child advocates, backed by a shelf-load of policy reports, say unless the displaced 4-year-olds attend a quality preschool, the opportunity to prepare them fully for kindergarten would be wasted. So SB 1381 says half of the savings to the state from moving up the cutoff date would  fund state preschool programs.

Since not all of the 100,000 children would be income-eligible for state preschool, Simitian is confident that the savings could fund all of those who are eligible and  some of the estimated 87,000 three- and four-year-olds who are already on the state’s preschool waiting list.

The Senate Education Committee liked the concept and passed the bill 8-0 this week. But with the state facing a multi-billion dollar deficit, some legislators may be tempted to seize the full $700 million to plug the hole in the budget.

That’s why Preschool California is  urging several amendments. SB 1381 says the intent of the bill is  fund preschool. Preschool California would strengthen the language to mandate that commitment. It also would make sure the excluded kindergartners get priority for preschool slots.

Preschool California also wants an alternative approach considered. That is a two-year full-day kindergarten for the September to December group of 4-year-olds. Los Angeles Unified is doing a pilot program in 34 schools. Instead of  a budget savings, there would be some additional expense. But the “junior K” program offers the most developmentally and educationally sound approach. The Legislature could initially limit the program to low-income neighborhoods.

In principle, having only 5-year-olds in kindergarten makes sense. But past efforts have run into resistance. Some parents of 4-year-olds will object to another year of child care. Districts won’t like  a one year loss of a quarter of their kindergarten teachers and possible reduction of Proposition 98 funding.

That’s why Simitian is proposing phasing in the change over three years, one month at a time. The cutoff date would shift to Nov.1, then Oct. 1, then finally Sept. 1 to minimize the disruption.

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