It's no secret the state of California is in financial crisis - and that one of the areas being hit the hardest is education.
For that reason, though many support the idea behind the Kindergarten Readiness Act and its subsequent mandate that all schools offer Transitional Kindergarten (TK) for children born late in the year, they also say, it's hard to support the idea for financial reasons.
In other words, some say, the people of California just can't support a state mandate to start offering a new program that costs additional money that just isn't there.
So, Patch decided to go directly to the man - California State Senator Joe Simitian, who authored SB 1381, otherwise known as the Kindergarten Readiness Act, changing the minimum age requirements so that all children must turn 5 years old by Sept. 1 in order to start kindergarten that year, and mandating that all schools in the state offer TK for students that otherwise would have been old enough to start kindergarten, having a birthday that falls between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2.
Patch had a conversation with Simitian recently and asked him this very question - what do you think about the fact that many school districts throughout the state say they can't afford to offer TK, to the extent that some are saying they refuse to offer it until the state provides the money to pay for it?
In a nutshell, Simitian said, those school districts are confused, and that offering TK should not cost them a penny more than it does to offer kindergarten right now.
Simitian: 'The money is there'
Simitian explained, the money for kindergarten and TK is part of what is known in the legislation as "Continuous Appropriations." That means, each year, the money to keep schools open is not something that is subject to a vote or a budget, it is automatically earmarked for California schools.
"The funding is there," he said. "It is not something the Governor can remove from the budget."
Furthermore, Simitian said, the school districts that say they can't afford to start offering TK are confused about the idea behind the law and how it supposed to be carried out.
In a nutshell, it's a matter of shuffling around the school's current resources, not paying for additional resources, to carry out offering TK.
By changing the law and declaring that all students must be 5 by Sept. 1 in order to start kindergarten, Simitian said, schools will basically see their kindergarten class sizes drop.
Simitian said, a lot of how a district looks at TK depends on whether the district is "basic aid" - meaning, funded through local property taxes - or "revenue-limit" - meaning, funded by the state based by the number of students enrolled.
Simitian explained, it behooves revenue-limit districts to offer TK because it would replace the students the district will lose to the new age requirement with TK students, so they keep their per-student funding.
Likewise, Simitian said, offering TK should not adversely affect a basic aid district's budget, since they are funded by property taxes and not the number of students. Again, Simitian reiterated, it's about shuffling around a school's kindergarten resources, not paying for additional resources.
Therefore, for example, if a school currently has five kindergarten classrooms in order to serve the number of students enrolled in kindergarten each year by the old age requirement, the school now might only need four classrooms. That fifth classroom could then be transformed into a TK classroom.
In other words, Simitian said, "There should be no additional costs, and no additional classrooms needed [in order for that school to offer TK]," he said. "You're still serving the same number of kids, just now, a certain number of them will be in a TK classroom instead of a kindergarten classroom."
When you look at it that way, it becomes hard to understand why so many districts are claiming they can't offer TK, he added.
Patch then asked Simitian, why are so many districts out there confused over how to make TK work in their schools?
Simitian responded, "I don't know. There's a lot of confusion out there. Although, the school districts should have a more refined understanding of this than the average person."
"School districts up and down the state should know about this by now," he continued. "Any school that chooses to provide TK will be fully funded."
What about the Governor?
Many officials from school districts across the state are still biting their nails, waiting to find out just how much Gov. Jerry Brown is going to take away from schools as he desperately tries to balance the state budget.
Earlier this year, Simitian said the Governor tried to pass a state budget that did away with TK - meaning, he wanted to keep the $700 million in savings statewide that would come from not allowing children who don't meet the new kindergarten age requirement to enroll in school and use it to pay for other state needs. Simitian said, the governor's thinking was, by keeping the age requirement but making TK optional, many schools would opt out, saying they can't afford to offer it.
Thankfully, Simitian said, the state legislature rejected Gov. Brown's proposal by a 3-1 vote.
"So, TK remains the law, and the funding is still in place," he said, adding that any school district that does not have a TK program in place come the first day of the 2012-13 school year in the fall will be in violation of state law.
Simitian said, when he authored the Kindergarten Readiness Act and fought for it to be passed, he never intended to leave California schools squandering to afford to offer something that he, in essence, made mandatory.
"That would mean parents [of children with late-year birthdays] would have to fend for themselves, and that makes me heartbroken," he said.
How is the Pacifica School District faring?
Pacifica can take 24 students for its first TK classroom, set to begin this fall. Enrollment is currently open. However, the program is at risk due to the most recent budget proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown, as Patch reported earlier. If the proposal passes this summer, districts will not be required to offer transitional kindergarten, and the district will not have the funds to offer this program.
Pacifica School District Superintendent Wendy Tukloff told Patch that the district will move forward with TK, whether or not funding from the state comes through.
"In order to inform our families and make sure that they were able to prepare for next year, we felt it important that we make a decision," Tukloff said. The decison was that we would move forward with TK."
For several years, Pacifica School District has had a mid-year program, which begins each January for students who are not yet ready for kindergarten. Tukloff said that if state funding isn't provided for TK this fall, the district may reallocate funding from the mid-year program to support TK.
Tukloff told Patch that she thinks TK will be a great program, but the challenge will be developing the program, including a new curriculum, in such a short period of time and without any additional funding for startup costs.
"The state funding is strictly on an average daily attendence basis," Tukloff said. "It didn’t come with dollars behind it to develop a program and start one up."
The superintendent says the district would ideally receive the resources to hire an additional staff member for TK. The teacher slated to teach TK is still busy closing her 2011-2012 Kindergarten class, so is not yet fully available to begin planning for the fall.
"It takes a lot of planning and a lot of organization and in a time when we’re at somewhat of a fiscal crisis, it’s difficult to start new programs," she said. "But I think the goal and philosophy behind it is wonderful."
Pacifica's TK program will be taught at the Sunset Ridge Elementary School.
Taylor Wiles contributed to this story.