For better or worse, kindergarten has replaced the cookies, milk and naptime of old with reading lessons and numbers worksheets. It's hard enough for a 5-year-old to negotiate; teachers complain that those younger than 5 are especially likely to fall behind. That's why most states have changed their laws, requiring children to have turned 5 close to the start of the school year in order to enter kindergarten. California is one of a dozen that haven't; here, the cutoff date is Dec. 2.
A bill by state Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) would do more than remedy the situation. By phasing in a Sept. 1 cutoff date, it would save California more than $9 billion over 15 years — an average of nearly $700 million annually during the years when it would be fully implemented. And it would put half the savings into preschool for low-income students who are too young for kindergarten, which would make them all the more prepared for a successful public school career starting with that first year in the big K.
Simitian's bill goes about this shift cannily. If the state suddenly changed the cutoff date to Sept. 1, kindergarten enrollment would plummet that one year by a fourth, or about 100,000 students. Although that would save money for the state, school districts would be pushed into immediate financial crisis by the sudden loss of the state attendance money for each student, and the state preschool system would be unable to gear up for the increased enrollment. Instead, Senate Bill 1381 would phase in the new cutoff dates, one month at a time over three years, lowering enrollment for each year's entering class by about 33,000. The savings would end in 15 years, once those smaller classes graduated.
Some 4-year-olds are ready for the new academic rigors of kindergarten, and Simitian's bill would permit parents to appeal to their local districts to enroll them. It also uses state resources more efficiently because state preschool is about half as expensive per student as kindergarten.
Who could possibly object to a bill that improves student performance, expands needed preschool programs and saves the state hundreds of millions a year for more than a decade? The powerful California Teachers Assn. opposes SB 1381, saying that the state would be making budget cuts "on the backs of children." That's not true. Students would be better off; it's the teachers union that would be worse off, because having fewer students enrolled over the 15 years would mean that fewer teachers would be needed. Although this is a legitimate concern for unions, it's a weak reason to keep a fiscally and educationally sound bill from becoming law.
Lawmakers could plow some of that money back into the schools, they could increase funding for public colleges and universities, or they could use it to plug a few holes in the deficit. But they should be given the flexibility to use that extra money as needed over the years. SB 1381 is a smart and thoughtfully designed bill that deserves swift passage.