Compromise is the name of the game with the California budget’s inclusion of additional preschool programming, which is going to include less transitional kindergarten than initially anticipated.

Countywide, it’s still unclear how many more preschool slots there will be, but the state surveyed the local Title 5 programs, that serve low-income students, to assess how many additional slots they think they could fill. There are 22 Title 5 programs in San Mateo County, including the San Mateo County Office of Education that requested 50 additional preschool slots, said Nancy Magee, administrator for board support and community relations at the county Office of Education. Educators and district officials throughout the county have been advocating for expanded transitional kindergarten programming.

“We are excited about the state’s commitment to our youngest learners,” Molly Barton, assistant superintendent of student services for the San Mateo-Foster City Elementary School District, said in an email. “We will wait until the governor signs the budget and we receive more information from the Department of Education.”

The plan, part of the 2014-15 budget passed by the Legislature Sunday, includes an early childhood education package that proposes $268 million to increase access and improve quality in existing programs. It establishes an ongoing $50 million annual grant to support quality improvements in the state’s preschool programming and provides $35 million for professional development and facilities, while creating 11,500 full-day spaces in state preschool for low-income 4-year-olds.

State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, is one of the senators who introduced the Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2014, which would have put $198 million a year into allowing all 4-year-olds to attend the new grade level. While the act was not part of the finalized budget now on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk awaiting his signature, it had called for an additional 46,000 transitional kindergarten slots per year over five years.

Hill is disappointed his early education programming won’t be enacted, but is grateful for what additional programs will be added.

“Politics is about the possible,” Hill said. “This is the possible and practical in this case. … Everyone agrees on the benefit of early childhood education.”

Local reaction

Others are pleased to see state legislators invest in more early childhood education, especially for low-income families, but hope at some point there are additional state resources to ensure all 3- and 4-year-olds in California receive high-quality preschool and transitional kindergarten, said Alisa MacAvoy, San Mateo County School Boards Association president and trustee on the Redwood City Elementary School District board. Those at the association published a position paper advocating for universal preschool in January and has been vocal about supporting early childhood education.

“We have many students on waitlists for affordable preschool in Redwood City,” MacAvoy wrote in an email. “If there is additional money for state preschool, we will be able to provide additional spots in preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds in order for them to be successful in kindergarten and beyond. High-quality early-childhood education is important to help close the achievement gap.”

A bit more disappointed is Seth Rosenblatt, trustee on the San Carlos Elementary School District board, who believes the state government missed an opportunity to make a structural change in the public school system.

“It would have been a really bolder statement about the fact we need to change the structure of K-12 education that hasn’t changed much in a century,” he said.

The concept of transitional kindergarten came about as part of the state’s Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2010 and was created to serve younger students with birthdays between September and December. It is currently available only to 4-year-olds whose birthdays fall too late in the calendar year to be eligible for kindergarten. Students aren’t required to start school until age 6.

That transformed into this year’s Kindergarten Readiness Act that would have been phased in over a five-year period beginning during the 2015-16 school year. During the phase-in, 46,000 4-year-olds would be added each year to the Transitional Kindergarten for All program, eventually totaling 350,000 additional children eligible for transitional kindergarten. California has three major educational programs for preschool-aged children: state preschool, federal Head Start and transitional kindergarten. The act would have combined part-day state preschool for 4-year-olds with transitional kindergarten. The program would eventually provide transitional for all 4-year-olds, with an extra year of Head Start or Strong Start for children living in poverty.

Benefits of early education

Mounting and undeniable research shows starting school earlier helps students succeed later in the basic concepts of math and language, Alejandro Hogan, superintendent of the South San Francisco Unified School District, said in a prepared statement.

“If students arrive to kindergarten without an established foundation and understanding of basic concepts and classroom expectations, they are starting their academic careers already behind many of their peers and it can be difficult of those students to catch up,” he said.

Early Edge California, a nonprofit organization working to ensure all children have the early experiences necessary to be successful learners by the end of third-grade, setting them on a path to college and career readiness, co-sponsored the bill with State Superintendent Tom Torlakson. Its president, Deborah Kong, said she appreciates the Legislature’s leadership in making this down payment toward the future of the state’s youngest learners.

“The sad fact is that California needs to be doing more for our low-income children and families. This budget deal is a down payment on our future, but we must see this commitment through,” Kong said in a prepared statement. “We urge Gov. Brown to sign the budget proposal and set California on the path to preparing all of California’s children birth to age 5 for success — starting with the children who need it most.”

Early Edge’s director of communications, Molly Tafoya, said it’s her understanding that given the fiscal constraints of the budget process, some of the preschool and transitional kindergarten programming had to be cut.

“What’s really exciting about this budget deal is there is an intent to commit to serving all low-income 4-year-olds in the coming years,” she said. “At the end of the day, the ultimate goal is to get these children into a high-quality program.”

This is a significant first step, said Ted Lempert, trustee on the San Mateo County Board of Education and president of the national research and advocacy organization Children Now.

“I think we were all hoping for more significant investment in early education,” he said.

The budget agreement will be sent to Gov. Jerry Brown for his signature at the end of the month.

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