The bill would correct legislation on the books now that apparently has allowed the Las Lomitas School District to ignore a requirement to offer a program known as transitional kindergarten. It would also expand that kindergarten program, which now applies to only about 25 percent of children in the state.
Reports published in the Almanac late last year found that more than 90 percent of the state's school districts are offering transitional kindergarten, or TK, believing, as do most legislators who passed that law in 2010, that the program is mandatory in all public school districts. The 2010 law changed the age at which children are eligible for kindergarten; in the past, children turning 5 by Dec. 1 could enroll in kindergarten months before their fifth birthday. The new law moved the eligibility cutoff up a month at a time over three years to Sept. 1, but also instituted TK to allow children born between Sept. 2 and Dec. 1 to attend school.
Now Sens. Hill, D-San Mateo, who represents Menlo Park, and Steinberg, D-Sacramento, who is the state Senate president pro tem, have pledged to close the loophole that Las Lomitas says enables it to skirt what was intended to be an ironclad commitment to begin the earlier kindergarten program throughout the state. The bill they propose would expand the program to include all 4-year-olds in the state, rather than only the one-quarter eligible under the 2010 law.
At a press conference Sen. Hill said one of his reasons for co-sponsoring the bill is that the Las Lomitas district does not have the transitional kindergarten program offered by nearly every other district in the state. The Menlo Park City School District plans to discontinue its TK in the fall.
"Two school districts in my (Senate) district have interpreted the (existing) law to be voluntary and are not offering transitional kindergarten, causing children in San Mateo County to miss out on a critical developmental window," Sen. Hill said at the press conference. "The fact that two school districts are not offering the program creates haves and have-nots — children who can benefit from the program and those who are left out."
Despite their strong political support, the two senators may have a problem with Gov. Jerry Brown, who did not include the funding for the program, which is expected to cost $990 million when fully implemented in five years, in his just-released budget. But Sen. Steinberg issued a strong defense of the expenditure, saying, "I'm proud to call this wise spending in California. There are few better uses of the taxpayer dollars than investing in an evidence-based change providing young people, 4-year-olds, the head start they need."
If Sens. Hill and Steinberg can push the new bill through the Legislature and convince Gov. Jerry Brown to sign it, concerns about the cost of TK to the districts could be alleviated. As it stands now, if the measure is seen as a statewide mandate it would provide funding for facilities like TK classrooms to all school districts.
It is difficult to understand why the Las Lomitas and Menlo Park City districts, which have long been committed to high-quality education and whose students are high academic achievers year after year, would set themselves apart by refusing to support TK, which can be linked to better outcomes in later school years.
The superintendent of the Woodside Elementary School District, Beth Polito, sees TK as a way to save money by reducing the number of children who repeat a grade and who may require expensive special services.
We hope parents get the message and let Las Lomitas and Menlo Park City school board members know that it makes sense in many ways to support a TK program in their districts. It is the right thing to do and will pay off in the long run for students and the district.