Transitional kindergarten cuts rejected; weighted formula needs scruitiny

The Assembly’s subcommittee on education finance moved March 13 to reject Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to cut funds for transitional kindergarten and voted to send his plans to restructure how the state funds public schools through legislative policy committees for comprehensive review.

The Education Coalition announced its opposition to the proposal.

While the proposal is designed to achieve a number of laudable goals, it would make permanent the $20 billion in cuts schools have endured over the past four years, according to the coalition.

In releasing his 2012-13 budget in January, Brown proposed eliminating transitional kindergarten to save $223.7 million. The governor also proposed a “weighted” pupil funding formula to replace the existing school finance structure.

But the sweeping proposals repeatedly have run up against calls by lawmakers and concerned members of the education community for greater scrutiny and more thoughtful public consideration – especially when it comes to transitioning from existing systems to something new.

Transitional kindergarten is a case in point.

As it was repeatedly pointed out March 13, school districts up and down the state are planning to start transitional kindergarten classes this fall, since the program was approved by the Legislature and signed into law by Brown in 2010.

“My recommendation to reject the governor’s proposal around transitional kindergarten is not to say that we don’t have budget problems,” said Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, also chair of the subcommittee and one of the three Democrats who voted to reject Brown’s plan. “But here we have one program that without taking extra revenue brings promise to California and to our children.”

In recommending elimination of the pre-kindergarten program, Brown and his Department of Finance calculated a budget savings of $223.7 million. But since releasing the budget, the administration has acknowledged that actual savings could be less than half that amount, because districts with declining enrollments will receive a one-year “hold harmless” adjustment and will have the option to grant under-age children admission to regular kindergarten if their parents request it.

“I really challenge the debate around cost and savings on this issue,” said Assemblyman Sandré Swanson, D-Oakland. “When you look at the fact that you’re helping a child develop the skills to learn, you’re helping a child develop socially and emotionally, all of which reduces the possibility of that child ending up in the system somewhere later down the road, then you see that the investment far outweighs what is being called a ‘savings’ now.”

Scores of parents and education advocates lined up – both inside the packed hearing room and outside in hallways – to address the subcommittee on transitional kindergarten and the weighted pupil funding formula, which would remove spending restrictions on funds currently allocated for specific programs, also known as categoricals.

The new finance system would combine most of the remaining categorical program funds with the unrestricted – or discretionary – funds districts receive and apportion them first on a flat rate of $4,920 per student.

The plan then contains formulas for awarding additional funds based on a district’s population of needy students – generally English learners and those who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.

The subcommittee heard from a panel of district superintendents who testified that under the formula as proposed, their districts would be out millions of dollars – a hit none of them can afford to take after years of severe budget cuts to schools.

Others spoke about the devastating impacts numerous programs would face if some $4.7 billion in categorical funds are converted to discretionary spending, because districts likely would put those monies toward staff and salary increases instead.

The Education Coalition announced its opposition to the weighted funding proposal March 13, stating that while the proposal is designed to achieve a number of laudable goals, it would make permanent the $20 billion in cuts schools have endured over the past four years.

About $2.8 billion in categorical money is slated for flexible spending under the governor’s proposal, including home-to-school transportation, the Economic Impact Aid program and K-3 class-size reduction.

From the SI&A Cabinet Report. ACSA members may access the report’s free daily coverage of K-12 education at www.siacabinetreport.com.

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