Sunday, June 26, 2011


FEW STATE RULES FOR TRANSITION K: Light touch from Sacramento on new program

By John Fensterwald - Educated Guess |

6/24/11 • School districts that have complained for years that Sacramento attaches too many strings to new state programs should be pleased with transitional kindergarten, the new program for “old” 4-year-olds that districts must offer, starting the fall of 2012. There will be lots of latitude for the locals and few state-imposed rules. And that, says the law’s sponsor, Sen. Joe Simitian, is by design.

Ending decades of talk but no action, the Legislature last year moved up the start of kindergarten, requiring that children must turn five on or before Sept. 1, instead of Dec. 2, to enroll in it. Students who turn five between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2 will now be eligible for a transitional kindergarten followed the next year by a traditional kindergarten.

California had been one of few states that allowed 4-year-olds in kindergarten. Kindergarten teachers and psychologists had argued for years that wasn’t a good idea and that children would be far better off coming to kindergarten developmentally ready.

The Legislature’s approach was to adopt transitional kindergarten, as opposed to state-funded preschool or no substitute at all. Adding an extra year of kindergarten actually won’t cost the state any money until year 14, when the cohort of September to November birthdays would have graduated but instead will be in their senior year of high school. Proponents are betting a good portion of the cost will be offset by fewer special education expenses and fewer students being held back in elementary school. But to ease the transition, the program will be phased in over three years, one month at a time. Starting in September 2012, the kindergarten start date will be Nov. 1, then Oct. 1 in 2013 and Sept. 1 in 2014.

As for the particulars of transition kindergarten, SB 1381 was vague, defining transition kindergarten only as “the first year of a two-year kindergarten program that uses a modified kindergarten curriculum that is age and developmentally appropriate.”

“I have been a local control advocate for years,” said Simitian, a Democrat from Palo Alto who served on the Palo Alto Unified school board for eight years before running for Legislature. “People said give us flexibility and so with transition kindergarten, we did just that.”

There was also a financial reason for flexibility: avoiding creating state mandates that the Legislature would then have to fund.

Questions answered

Districts have had plenty of questions, and most have been answered in an FAQ on the Department of Education website. The basic message: The rules for kindergarten also apply to transitional kindergarten: Yes, there must be a credentialed teacher in the classroom; no, like kindergarten, transitional kindergarten is optional, not mandated for children. Otherwise, it’s each district’s prerogative whether to run combination classes, whether to go half or full day, whether to supply transportation and whether to offer transitional kindergarten at every school.

Catherine Atkin, president of Preschool California, a big advocate for transitional kindergarten, says she agreed with Simitian’s “light touch.”

“I appreciated his strong belief that this was not about having the state creating more requirements and trying to centralize the program,” she said.

What the State Board of Education has done is take the first step toward setting standards for transitional kindergarten, which will be a blend of early childhood learning guidelines and state kindergarten standards. The Board has asked the California State Advisory Council on Early Childhood Education and Care (ELAC) to propose them. Atkin praised the effort, while expressing worry whether ELAC will be around next year; Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed eliminating it.

Meanwhile, for lack of a set curriculum, Preschool California, with Packard Foundation support, has encouraged school districts that already have a transitional kindergarten in place, such as Sacramento City Unified and Los Angeles Unified, to share their experiences and best practices with other districts. LAUSD currently runs the program in 36 schools and will add an additional 100 this fall, one year before the program formally starts.

Simitian still has a bill, SB 30, in the hopper in case unresolved issues need to be clarified. But at this point, he said, there aren’t any.


MESS WITH PROP 98, DO NOT PASS GO: Chiang says budget doesn't pass balance test

By John Fensterwald - Educated Guess |

6/22/11 • In finding that legislators had passed a squirrely budget last week and therefore won’t get paid as of June 16, Controller John Chiang determined Tuesday that lawmakers had shorted the Proposition 98 obligation to K-12 schools and community colleges by about $1.3 billion (here is his analysis).

He’s not alone. That’s roughly the same amount that School Services of California, consultants for school districts, calculated and that I reported last week.

The Legislature has the right to appropriate less than schools are entitled to – they did it last year for the current budget – but suspending Prop 98 demands a two-thirds majority. Democrats, who passed the budget bill by a majority vote, didn’t try, and it’s no mystery why. Republicans, at this point at least, are saying they won’t supply the votes needed for suspension.

Chiang angered many legislators by determining that the $89.75 billion Democratic budget was out of balance by $1.85 billion. The problem with Prop 98 accounted for the bulk of the total. Gov. Jerry Brown, who’s been trying to persuade Republicans to reach a budget compromise, issued a two-sentence response – an invitation to press ahead: “The Controller has made his determination. We should all work together to pass a solid budget.”

John Mockler, who wrote the Prop 98 law two decades ago and was familiar with this year’s budget process, said that, in writing their budget, Democrats acknowledged that they owed school districts $1 billion in “settle-up” costs from the current and previous years’ budgets. This is the final amount after the books are closed. Mockler said that Democrats then disregarded the debt, figuring they’d pay it sometime in the future.

The remainder of the shortage involved disagreement over revenue estimates and how much would have to be made up by cuts if temporary taxes weren’t extended. Mockler said Democrats estimated the state would take in $800 million more, which, depending on whether it was this year or next, would entitle schools to at least several hundred million dollars more. But they left the schools’ portion out of the budget.

Jennifer Kuhn, director of K-12 education for the Legislative Analyst’s Office, said that calculating settle-up costs and estimating revenue for Prop 98 more than a year out are more art than science, and there will be legitimate disagreements over numbers. This would not be the first time that the Legislature would not be spending right at the Prop 98 guarantee, with the expectation of making corrections later.

Michael Ricketts, associate vice president of School Services of California, who first discovered the Prop 98 shortfall, agrees. What was different this time, he said, was legislators in the latest bill deliberately chose to ignore the best Prop 98 projection. “They have to use consistent estimates,” he said.

The trickery over Prop 98 shows how difficult it will be for the Legislature to cut the remaining $9 billion gap between spending and revenue without extending temporary taxes due to expire on July 1 or further cutting funds for K-12 schools and community colleges, which comprise 40 percent of the general fund budget.

The Los Angeles Times reported yesterday that Brown told Democratic leaders he would propose a budget with further cuts, perhaps as early as today. How he can do this without seeking a suspension of Prop 98, which requires Republican votes, is anyone’s guess. Now that they’re working gratis, however, legislators will have cause to get the job done.

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