May budget still seeks to make kindergarten-readiness optional

Gov. Jerry Brown's latest budget still seeks to eliminate the legal requirement that schools, starting this fall, must offer a new kindergarten-readiness program for 4-year-olds whose birthdays occur after Nov. 1, the kindergarten age cutoff date.

The governor's proposal would, instead, make transitional kindergarten optional by giving districts authority - and average daily attendance money - to offer those 4-year-olds an extra year of kindergarten, effectively creating a two-year kindergarten program.

The proposal sends something of a mixed message to districts, many of which have been planning new programs to comply with the Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2010 - the law requiring transitional kindergarten.

Brown's revised May budget, released Monday, does away with the term transitional kindergarten and contains no funding for it. But the governor's Department of Finance staff has said districts still can, on a case-by-case basis, offer to enroll certain 4-year-olds in regular kindergarten classes and the state would pay for them just as it does other students.

But many legislators who worked in support of the bill that created the program already this year have shown a strong reluctance to follow the governor's lead and cut the program.

The issue is just one of many Brown and legislative leaders are focused on as part of closing the state's yawning $16 billion spending shortfall this summer.

There is some sense among Capitol insiders that supporters of the program have gained the upper hand.

In January, when Brown first proposed eliminating transitional kindergarten, the administration estimated the savings at $223.7 million.

But fiscal analysts subsequently have trimmed the expected savings to $91.5 million as a result of what the administration calls the anticipated declining enrollment costs as well as an expected increase in two-year kindergarten costs."

As proposed in the revised budget, those savings would be used to restore budget reductions to support and expand preschool programs.

The governor's initial suggestion in January that transitional kindergarten be de-funded left many districts in limbo, wondering whether they should expend the energy and resources to plan and implement the program.

Even now, with the governor standing by his proposal to cut the program, state law still requires districts to prepare age-appropriate curriculum this fall for 4-year-olds whose autumn birthdays occur after Nov. 1, the cutoff date by which a child must turn 5 to enter kindergarten in the 2012-13 school year.

For the 2013-14 school year, the deadline date becomes Oct. 1; and Sept. 1 is the cutoff date for the 2014-15 school year and each year thereafter.

Some districts, like LA Unified, already offer a transitional kindergarten program and plan to continue doing so. Others plan to begin programs this fall while still others have said they have no intention of trying to create something new given their fiscal positions.

Education consultants and advocates who closely monitor the ever-shifting political landscape mostly are advising districts to follow the law and to plan for some form of transitional kindergarten.

"We continue to advise districts that the legislature is unlikely to implement the elimination of the transitional kindergarten requirement," said Barrett Snider, a legislative advocate and director of government and public affairs at School Innovations & Advocacy (SI&A is corporate host of the Cabinet Report). "The governor cannot "blue pencil" transitional kindergarten funding. That money is based upon average daily attendance and is provided as a continuous appropriation, rather than as an appropriation in the budget act. Schools are virtually certain to receive funding for transitional kindergarten attendance going forward."

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