Kindergartners across the state may be held back even before their first day of school if Senate Bill 1381 clears its final hurdle.
Senate Bill 1381, authored by state Sen. Joe Simitian, would change the age requirement for students entering kindergarten. Currently, students must be 5 years old by Dec. 2 of the school year. If the bill becomes law, the cutoff date would gradually take a three-month step back to Sept. 1.
The California State Assembly approved the bill, which is also referred to as the Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2010, on a 21-15 vote. Next stop for the legislation is Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's desk. He has 30 days to approve or veto the legislation.
Pending Schwarzenegger's approval, the bill would change the cutoff date to Nov. 1 in 2012, Oct. 1 in 2013 and then cement it at Sept. 1 in 2014.
"Today's kindergarten classroom is a much different place than most of us experienced," said Simitian, senator from California's 11th District, which includes the counties of Santa Clara, San Mateo and Santa Cruz. "We're placing real academic demands on our kids, and the youngest are struggling to keep up. The evidence shows that giving these younger kindergarteners an extra year can make a big difference in their long-term success."
Debbie Bacino, the director of La Cañada Preschool, agrees with Simitian, saying that about 10 or 15 years ago, a shift occurred in kindergarten's curriculum. Today, kindergarten is more like what first grade once was, she said.
"The bar has been raised as to what we're teaching in kindergarten," Bacino said. "It's more academic and less learning through play. While that has occurred, parents want their kids to be developmentally ready for kindergarten and this bill is helping that occur. I think the kids win with this bill."
The bill aims to have students better prepared for when they enter the public-school system.
"There is a growing body of research that seems to show that for many kids, starting the public-school system in kindergarten before [being] developmentally ready can create ongoing negative repercussions if the child feels they started out on the wrong foot in school," said Joel Peterson La Cañada Unified School District Governing Board Member. "This type of feeling can have long-term ramifications. This bill seems to try to address that."
The bill could benefit not just kindergartners, but the state budget, as well. The reduced student population would save California an estimated $700 million annually. Over 13 years, this would total $9.1 billion in savings, according to a press release from Simitian's office.
The extra dollars from the bill would be spent in two places. Half of the funds would support a new Transitional Kindergarten program, which would provide a curriculum appropriate for the young 5-year-olds and serve as their first year of a two-year kindergarten program.
The remaining money would be used to help address California's budget deficit.
Under the legislation, kids could still enroll in kindergarten early on a case-by-case basis if parents and the local school district agreed it was in the child's best interest.
"For me personally, as long as the bill allows for local school boards to give exceptions where there is merit and need so we still maintain local control, I don't see this bill as a negative," Peterson said.
LCUSD has not officially taken a side on the matter, but both board members Peterson and Cindy Wilcox are in favor of the bill.
"For a few kids that are young, they will be better off going into the system a little older," Wilcox said. "You can't say how it will work for 100% of students, but I think it will help quite a number of them."
Peterson said he doesn't believe the bill will impact the district much because enrollment in district kindergarten classes continue to shrink. He thinks this decrease is caused by two things: the cost of home ownership in La Cañada, which makes it difficult for young families with children to move into the city, and the fact the district doesn't offer a full-day kindergarten program, which families with two full-time working parents would need.
Nita Imm, a teacher at Crescenta-Cañada Cooperative Nursery School, said she doesn't believe the results would impact their enrollment at all, but thinks it will be beneficial for the kids.
"They're giving them that extra bonus year — I call it the gift of time, so they will be ready for kindergarten," Imm said. "I think it's a good thing; it seems a lot of parents are doing it voluntarily anyway."
Both Imm and Bacino agree that the bill would have little to no effect on their school's enrollment because they've noticed that La Cañada parents seem to prefer holding their kids back a year.
"As an educator, you need to worry about what's best for the kids and I believe that's what this bill is about," Bacino said. "…I would support this bill and whatever happens in the preschool world will work itself out. We're evening the playing field and doing what's in the best interest of the kids."