San Francisco Unified School District, which begins registration today for the next academic year, is the first district in California to forgo plans for Transitional Kindergarten. The decision leaves several hundred families, who thought their children would be entering the new educational program, with few options. The district on its website blames the governor’s proposed budget, which would cut money for a program that San Francisco Unified can’t afford on its own.
Districts like San Francisco are finding themselves in the position of making key budget decisions based on assumptions that won’t be certain until the Legislature passes a budget in late spring. In the case of TK, the picture is especially murky.
The Legislature established Transitional Kindergarten in 2010 when it moved up the entry age for kindergarten to September 1 instead of December 1. In shifting the age, the Legislature created the new program for the children who would turn five within that three-month window. They would attend a transitional kindergarten the first year, and then regular kindergarten the next year.
Gov. Jerry Brown, however, saw TK’s budget as a pot of $224 million to help close the state’s $9.2 billion budget gap. He kept the new entry age for kindergarten while eliminating funding for TK in his proposed budget, leaving children with September 1 through December 1 birthdays no option but another year of preschool. (He also proposed cutting $517 million in state preschool money, leaving low-income children with nowhere to go.)
At least that’s what it seemed in his January budget. Now, however, early childhood advocates, as well as State Senator Joe Simitian, the author of SB 1381, which created TK, say they’re not sure what the governor is proposing, but the administration seems to be backing away from its initial recommendation.
In an uncomfortable exchange last week, at a hearing before the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee, Sen. Simitian tried, unsuccessfully, to get some clarity from Michael Cohen and Thomas Todd, two officials with the State Department of Finance. Initially, Todd said that districts could provide TK, but it would be “on their own dime.” A few minutes later, according to a transcript of the proceedings, he said the state would provide ADA funding to children in Transitional Kindergarten when they turned five. (To watch a video of the hearing, click here and fast forward to 1:07:35.)
A clearly mystified Simitian finally asked for the Finance Department to provide some actual language before the next hearing in February, to explain exactly what the governor is proposing. During a phone conversation, he said the administration shouldn’t have tossed out a proposal with the potential to affect 125,000 children a year, and their parents, without a better understanding of its impact.
“As you probe on some of these issues, and I don’t say this critically or with any attitude, but it is clear that the administration hasn’t fully thought through the impact of the proposal,” said Simitian. “In fact, the proposal has not yet been fully developed.”
There’s also very little savings to the state by eliminating the TK budget, said Sen. Simitian. If the governor agrees to provide ADA funding for the students when they turn five, then the state would be saving only about one-quarter of $224 million in proposed savings the first year. On the flip side, if the cuts go through and enrollment drops because those 125,000 children are not in school, districts will still get their full ADA money for another year under the state’s declining enrollment program.
Scott Moore, senior policy advisor with Preschool California, suspects that the public outcry made the governor reconsider the proposal. “I think they’re recognizing the real impact of their proposal, which is TK doesn’t cost any new money, so the only way to get savings from it is if you actually deny kindergarten to children who were going to get it that year,” said Moore. “It’s an unfortunate situation creating a lot of chaos in our school system, which is already under tremendous pressure.”
That’s what San Francisco Unified hoped to avoid by halting registration. They had planned to put TK and kindergarten children together and provide differentiated instruction. Essentially, the younger students would spend two years in kindergarten. But the district’s choice-based enrollment system, where parents select their preferences for schools and then assignments are made based on capacity and other factors, would have been turned inside out if they found out in June or July that there was no money for the TK program.
“The reality is that we can’t take a gamble with offering placements that we then may later have to retract,” said district spokeswoman Gentle Blythe. “It would have a domino effect throughout our enrollment.”
If the legislature protects the funding, Blythe says San Francisco Unified will offer TK, but it will be a separate program run out of two early education schools that have space.
Families squeezed on both ends
The upheaval may be worse for the parents who were led to believe their children would be in school in the fall and could find themselves scrambling over the summer to find a preschool that has space and that’s affordable. Low-income parents would be especially hard hit, because the governor is also recommending cuts to the state’s subsidized child care program, and 60 percent of the students who would be affected by changes in TK are poor.
Child care advocates say more than 50,000 low-income families could lose access to affordable, high-quality child care.
“It’s not just that these parents are being turned away from a program that they thought they were going to have available to them; there may be no programs to go back to with all these cuts, or they may not even be eligible for any type of child care subsidy if it’s a low-income parent,” said Carlise King, research director for the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network.
Sen. Simitian is frustrated by how the governor’s recommendations have taken what should have been an orderly, phased-in transition and made it more complicated, uncertain, and confusing. While he understands the difficulty that’s created for districts like San Francisco Unified, the senator wants to remind them that until and unless the Legislature overturns SB 1381, then nothing has changed.
“SB 1381 was passed by both houses of the Legislature and signed into law by Governor Schwarzenegger in 2010, and it takes effect commencing with the 2012-2013 school year,” explained Simitian. “There’s nothing ambiguous about that.”