By Barbara Wood
The bad news for Menlo Park parents whose children will turn 5 between Sept. 1 and Dec. 2 of next year is that neither the Las Lomitas nor Menlo Park City districts plans to offer the transitional kindergarten programs that all other local districts provide.
It turns out that the opinion by the districts' attorneys that the current law isn't really mandatory is also the opinion of the state Legislature's own attorneys.
There is, however, a sliver of hope for these parents. State Democratic legislators have announced that one of their priorities for the 2014-15 budget is to "make transitional kindergarten universal for all 4 year-olds." If the measure is passed early in the session, it could go into effect in time to force the two local districts to offer transitional kindergarten next fall.
Transitional kindergarten is an extra year of kindergarten that currently is offered only to the children affected when the birth date for kindergarten admission was pushed back from Dec. 2 to Sept. 1. A study by the American Institutes of Research found that in 2012, only 4 percent of California districts with any eligible children did not have a two-year kindergarten.
But the two local districts have been advised by their attorneys, who work for the San Mateo County Counsel's office, that the law is not mandatory. "The law doesn't say that it's mandatory," said Eugene Whitlock, San Mateo County deputy county counsel and legal adviser for the Las Lomitas District.
Representatives of both districts say that if the law isn't mandatory, they have higher priorities for spending their money.
According to Menlo Park City School District board member Terry Thygesen, her district's board discussed transitional kindergarten at its December meeting and confirmed it will not continue the program offered for the past three school years. The Las Lomitas Elementary School District has never had a transitional kindergarten program and board president Jay Siegel says it has not been discussed by the board at any recent meetings.
State Senator Jerry Hill says he, along with Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, will introduce a bill in January to make the extra year of kindergarten mandatory for all school districts. He also wants to expand the program to include all 4-year-olds, not just the 25 percent who are now eligible, phasing in the program over five years.
Sen. Hill recently told the Almanac that he and other legislators thought the program they approved in 2010 was mandatory. "It was my intent when I voted for it that it would be mandatory," he said adding that he thinks that view was shared by "everyone else in the Legislature."
However, he recently asked the legislative counsel for an opinion on the current law. "It is our opinion that a school district is not required to offer a transitional kindergarten program," the opinion concludes.
Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, a state senator at the time and author of the Kindergarten Readiness Act, disagrees with the opinion, which he points out "is not a legal determination, it is just an opinion. It has no binding force of law."
What the opinion misses, he says, is the context in which the transitional kindergarten program was created. Transitional kindergarten was designed so that children who under previous state law could have started kindergarten can still begin schooling at the same age, but in the transitional program.
Sen. Hill says the language that makes transitional kindergarten optional was an error in drafting the bill, and "we need to take some action to correct that error, however it was made. It needs to be clarified."
The new bill, Sen. Hill said, is now being drafted and should be introduced early in January. Current plans would call for a class size of 20 students with two teachers. Districts could offer half-day or full-day programs.
The senator acknowledges the program will not be inexpensive. "It would cost about $266 million per year over the five-year phase- in," he said. "It's a lot of money."
However the state's budget is currently showing a surplus and he said he is "optimistic" about the chances of passage for the bill.
"It makes good sense since we know the benefit is there," he said. "We know the investment is a valuable one, and it pays great dividends in the long term, so it makes sense to do it."
The local districts, already bursting at the seams with new students, could have problems finding funding and classrooms for even more students, but Sen. Hill said such issues will be considered. "I'm sure that will be part of discussion as the bill moves forward to see how that can be done," Senator Hill said. "There's ways around both of those."
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