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Simitian now favors ‘junior’ kindergarten

07.21.2010 | Educated Guess | John Fensterwald

Sen. Joseph Simitian has sided with early childhood advocates over budget hawks in the debate over his bill to change the start date for kindergarten. He now has to persuade the Assembly Appropriations Committee to go along with a new version of his bill, creating a “junior” kindergarten for some 4-year-olds.

Simitian’s SB 1381 would move up the start date of kindergarten so that students would have to turn five by Sept. 1, instead of Dec. 2. The effect, excluding kindergarten for 4-year-olds, has long been favored by most educators and child development experts, who say, with substantial evidence, that most 4-year-olds are neither emotionally nor developmentally ready for kindergarten.  The hangup has been what to do with the savings from not having to educate a quarter of the kindergarten class that first year.

Simitian, a Democrat from Palo Alto, had proposed splitting the estimated $700 million savings, using half to fund preschool for the excluded 4-year-olds and diverting half to reduce the state’s mammoth budget deficit. But, taking the suggestion of  the Assembly Education Committee and child advocates, he now favors a transition kindergarten — “junior kindergarten” – for those children. They would, in effect, attend two years of kindergarten.

Such a program wouldn’t cost the state any money, since the kids would be attending kindergarten anyway. But the state wouldn’t save any money either.

While a fiscal wash, the 2-year kindergarten is the choice of child advocates, who point to the inconsistent quality of many preschool programs. It also should now be backed by the California Teachers Association, since no kindergarten teachers will lose their jobs.

Kindergarten has become more academically demanding since the advent of standards-based education and No Child Left Behind. What once was required of first graders – writing letters,  identifying events in a text, counting up to 30  – have been pushed into kindergarten under California standards.

A few districts, including Oak Grove in San Jose, have offered transition kindergarten under the radar for years and sworn by it. This year, Los Angeles Unified was approved to pilot a voluntary  two-year kindergarten program for 4-year-olds.

Simitian said this week that he will continue to have the support of some Republicans, as long as the program doesn’t cost the state additional money. The Assembly Appropriations will take up the bill within the next month.

Updated in response to questions raised by readers: The revised language for SB 1381 isn’t out yet, but “junior” kindergarten will be limited strictly to students born between Sept. 1 and Dec. 2. There would be no developmental test to qualify students outside of that age range. That would create potential for an open-ended expense, which won’t fly.

I should have said that the creation of a two-year kindergarten for the fall 4-year-olds would cost money, but the “bill” for the extra year theoretically would not come due until these students are seniors in high school, 14 years from now. Simitian plans to phase in transitional kindergarten over three years, one birthday month at a time, and there will be an opt-out for parents who sill want their 4-year-olds to be in regular kindergarten. For an updated information sheet on the bill, see here

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