SAN FRANCISCO — California educators and childcare advocates are protesting Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to scrap a new program for children who are no longer old enough for kindergarten.
In his plan to close the state budget deficit, Brown proposes to cut funding for "transitional kindergarten," a new grade level created when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation that raised the starting age for kindergarten.
Kellie Little, a salon owner who lives in Marin County, said she was planning to send her son, who turns 5 in November, to the new kindergarten program at her local public school.
"Now I'm going to have to scramble to find another pre-K program," Little said. "It's going to be even more expensive. It's definitely something I wasn't budgeting for. I was planning to get my son into transitional kindergarten."
The 2010 Kindergarten Readiness Act pushes back the date by which children must turn 5 to enter kindergarten from Dec. 2 to Sept. 1. The change will be phased in one month at a time over three years starting this fall.
The legislation established transitional kindergarten for kids who don't make the new cutoff date. The program is to be taught by credentialed teachers and tailored to children who would turn 5 in September, October and November.
The governor's plan would impact an estimated 40,000 children eligible for transitional kindergarten this fall – and about 120,000 kids when the law takes full effect in fall 2014.
Brown is seeking to close an estimated $9.2 billion budget deficit for 2012-2013 with a mix of temporary tax increases and spending cuts to social services and education.
The Democratic governor wants to save an estimated $224 million in the coming fiscal year by not requiring districts to offer transitional kindergarten. That savings would increase to $672 million in 2014-2015 when the kindergarten cutoff date is pushed back to Sept. 1.
"Given the fiscal situation the state is in, we should not embark on this type of a program expansion at this time," said H.D. Palmer, Brown's finance spokesman. "This is one of the difficult decisions that was necessary to close a budget gap of $9 billion."
Advocates of transitional kindergarten say the plan would shut thousands of children out of public education, cost several thousand teacher jobs and hurt families that can't afford an extra year of childcare or preschool.
"It's an immense hardship on the families, and it's not good for the kids," state Sen. Joe Simitian, who authored the 2010 law, said Friday. He and preschool advocates spoke out against the governor's proposal at the annual gathering of the California Kindergarten Association in Santa Clara.
California currently has one of the country's latest cutoff dates – about one-fourth of students are 4 when they start kindergarten. Most states require students to be 5 to enroll.
Raising the kindergarten age could lead to stronger academic performance, higher graduation rates and fewer students needing to repeat grades or take special-education classes, supporters say.
Many families hold their children back a year to give them more time to get ready for kindergarten, which has become more academically intensive in recent years, but that isn't an option for low-income families.
Parents who believe their children are ready for kindergarten or can't afford another year of childcare can petition their districts to allow their children to start school early, said Susan Burr, executive director of the state Board of Education.
The proposal to eliminate the mandate for transitional kindergarten is part of the governor's plan to give school districts more discretion over how they spend state education funds, Burr said.
"These decisions are best made at the local level," said Burr, who serves as Brown's education policy advisor.
A coalition of educators, preschool advocates and lawmakers vowed to fight Brown's kindergarten proposal.
"This is a nonstarter," said Catherine Atkin, executive director of the advocacy group Preschool California. "This is not the time to move backward in providing access to public education."