June 16th, 2010 || For two decades, bills to exclude 4-year-olds from kindergarten have foundered in the Legislature, even though child advocates and kindergarten teachers all but universally agree that children that young don’t belong in their classes.
The latest effort, Sen. Joe Simitian’s SB 1381, has passed the Senate and is halfway home. Whether it ultimately becomes law will depend on whether Simitian, a Democrat from Palo Alto, can hold the middle ground on what to do with savings generated by bill.
SB 1381 would require that students starting kindergarten must turn five by Sept. 1 of the school year, instead of Dec. 2, the current deadline. Moving up the start date by three months would reduce enrollment by an estimated 100,000 children – one quarter of kindergartners for that year – and save as much as $700 million, depending whether the change is made in one year or, as Simitian proposes, is phased in over three years, with less initial savings.
There’s little dispute that most 4-year-olds aren’t developmentally ready for kindergarten. What’s defeated past bills are disagreements on what to do with the money. The savings from a smaller group of kindergartners one year would continue as the children progressed through the next 12 years of school.
Simitian’s compromise is to split the savings, with half applied to reduce a $19 billion state budget deficit and half committed as additional spending for state-funded preschool. The Legislative Analyst projects there would be enough money to serve 29,000 of the 4-year-olds whose kindergarten would be delayed and whose family incomes qualify for the state program, plus an additional 59,000 three- and four-year olds who are currently on the state preschool wait list.
But the non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office and fiscal conservatives want to use the full $700 million to reduce the deficit, while early childhood advocates either want all of the money going to expand preschool or, as a more expensive alternative, to establish a two-year kindergarten program for the September-November birthday kids. A few school districts are quietly doing this already, and receiving regular state funding for the program.
While “wholeheartedly” supporting the change in kindergarten age, the California Teachers Association is among those who opposing the bill because it would not guarantee “quality preschool” for all children displaced by the date change. In its opposition letter, the CTA says “budget cuts should not be made on the backs of children.” (Simitian said it was a request to change the start date, signed by nearly 300 teachers, that led him to file the bill in the first place.)
A “junior kindergarten” for 4-year-olds, led by certificated teachers, is appealing. But now, amid the state’s worst funding crisis is not the time to push for a new program with added state costs.
California is one of only four states that allow 4-year-olds in kindergarten. (Even if SB 1381 passes, parents with advanced 4-year-olds could petition their school boards to let their children in kindergarten.) Other states recognize that children that young will be more emotionally ready and do academically better by waiting a year. With some districts now packing 30 kindergartners to a class because of budget cuts, the difficulties of accommodating 4-year-olds have become more acute.
Simitian’s bill would funnel hundreds of millions of new dollars to preschool and set an educationally sound start date for kindergarten. It’s an opportunity that shouldn’t slip by.