Simitian introduces kindergarten readiness bill

04.13.2010 | California Chronicle

SACRAMENTO – State Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) announced legislation to change the minimum age for children entering kindergarten. The proposal, supported by policy experts and education advocates, would boost kindergarten readiness and save an estimated $700 million annually, totaling $9.1 billion over a 13 year period.

Under current law, children entering kindergarten must be five years old by December 2nd of that school year. Simitian´s Senate Bill 1381 would require that students starting kindergarten must turn five by September 1st of the school year. The new age requirement would be phased in over three years beginning in 2012.

“Today´s kindergarten classroom is a much different place than most of us experienced,” said Simitian. “We´re placing real academic demands on our kids, and the youngest are struggling to keep up. The evidence shows that giving these younger kindergarteners an extra year can make a big difference in their long term success.”

In addition to benefiting children, Simitian´s bill would also save the State an estimated $700 million dollars in annual education spending due to the reduced student population. The cumulative savings over 13 years would reach $9.1 billion.

SB 1381 would dedicate half of the funds to quality preschool programs for children whose entry to kindergarten would be delayed. The remainder of the funds would help alleviate California´s budget shortfall.

“I see this change as a win-win-win,” Simitian said. “Kindergarteners will be better prepared to succeed, we´ll free up much-needed funds during a tough economic time, and we can help fund an age appropriate quality pre-school program. It just makes sense, educationally and financially,” he said.

California has one of the latest cut-off dates in the nation, and approximately one quarter of children start kindergarten before reaching age five. Under SB 1381, all kindergarteners would be at least five years old when beginning classes, although parents would still be able to request exceptions from their local district.

“Right now we´re putting a quarter of our students needlessly at risk for academic difficulty,” said San Jose Unified School District Board Member Leslie Reynolds. “I chose to wait to enroll my own child into kindergarten, allowing her to be one of the older in her class, instead of the youngest. It´s one of the best decisions I ever made,” said Reynolds.

Educators in Simitian´s district (San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties) have been outspoken supporters of the September 1st cut-off date. In March of last year, 289 teachers signed a petition to Simitian requesting the change.

“As teachers, we see students who enter school at 4 1/2 struggling every day in the classroom,” said Natalie Bivas, a reading specialist in Palo Alto and one of the petition organizers. “Almost every child who comes to me for reading support has a fall birthday. They don’t catch up somehow down the line. Instead, they end up on everyone’s radar. By third grade, teachers start asking me why we didn’t hold these children back. By then, we’re discussing a special education intervention.”

Diana Argenti, a kindergarten teacher at Walter Hays School in Palo Alto, partnered with Bivas to circulate the petition. “I was frustrated seeing these young children have problems in kindergarten. Now I know it´s a much bigger problem,” said Argenti. “If we´re teaching things too young, in the long term it can cause social and emotional issues.”

Research indicates that beginning school at an older age improves children´s social and academic development. A 2005 study by the Rand Corporation found a “significant boost” to test scores, especially for children from low-income families. Based on these benefits, California´s non-partisan Legislative Analyst´s Office, the California Performance Review, and the Governor´s Committee on Education Excellence have each called for an earlier kindergarten cut-off date.

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