Sept. 1 start date for kindergarten

10.01.2010 | Thoughts on Public Education | John Fensterwald

California has now joined nearly every state in requiring that children be five years old when starting kindergarten.

Hours before the midnight deadline for deciding on legislation, Gov. Schwarzenegger signed a bill that will move up the cutoff for kindergarten from Dec. 2 to Sept. 1 and fund an extra year of transition kindergarten for those 4-year-olds who no longer will be eligible for regular kindergarten because of the change.

The passage of Sen. Joe Simitian’s Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2010 (SB 1381), probably the most significant education bill of the session, ends a two-decade campaign to change the entrance date for kindergarten. The establishment of a transition kindergarten satisfied early education advocates, who were worried that simply moving up the date for kindergarten would leave older 4-year-olds without an education alternative.

“This is a victory for kids on two fronts,” said Simitian in a press release. “We start kids when they’re ready to succeed in school, and for younger children we provide a ‘get ready’ year of instruction as well.”

The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office and the Governor’s Committee on Education Excellence, along with the California Kindergarten Association, had called for the change. All cited studies that concluded the earlier start date would reduce the need to retain students for an extra grade and ensure that children would be developmentally ready for an increasingly demanding kindergarten. The next step is for educators to develop a curriculum for the transition year.

The change will affect about 100,000 children born between Sept. 1 and the current cutoff date, Dec. 2. The $700 million that would have been saved by excluding them from regular kindergarten will instead fund a transition kindergarten for those children. The change will be phased in over three years, moving the birthday up one month each year.

Because the savings was not used to offset the budget deficit, as proposed in an early version of the bill, Simitian lost Republican support, and there was great speculation over whether Schwarzenegger would veto it. But in a  message with his signature, the governor said,  “SB 1381 is a landmark accomplishment for early childhood developmental education in California, and I’m proud to sign this important legislation.”

Simitian took up the cause after two kindergarten teachers from Palo Alto submitted a petition signed by 289 teachers urging the change.

One of the two leaders, Natalie Bivas, said in Simitian’s press release last night, “All children will have a chance to be successful at school right from the start, and I will no longer have to watch four-and-a-half-year-olds struggle with curriculum that is too difficult.”

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