LOS ANGELES — A California law requires public schools to add a grade level this fall designed to give the very youngest students a boost when they enroll in kindergarten, but charter schools say the law does not apply to them, pitting them against the state Department of Education.
The education department says the 2010 Kindergarten Readiness Act requiring transitional kindergarten programs applies to all public schools, including charters.
"The department believes if a school offers kindergarten, it’s also obligated to offer transitional kindergarten,” said department spokesman Paul Hefner.
The California Charter Schools Association, however, analyzed the law at length and told its members that transitional kindergarten is optional, said Colin Miller, the association’s vice president of policy.
More than 800 school districts rolled out transitional kindergarten programs this school year in compliance with the law, but many charter schools have not launched the program. Charter schools are public, taxpayer-funded schools that are independently operated but loosely overseen by the agency that authorizes them. In California, that’s mostly the local school district.
The disagreement over transitional kindergarten adds to the competitive tension between traditional public schools and charters over various policies, including enrollment of English learners and students with severe disabilities, and allowing charters to take over classroom space on traditional school campuses.
The transitional kindergarten issue centers on interpretation of legislation signed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that aims to have all children turn 5 before they enter kindergarten to ensure they are mature enough for school. It’s also designed to bring California in line with policies in most states as national curriculum standards go into effect this year. Besides California, only Michigan, Vermont and Connecticut allow 4-year-olds to start school.
Under the law, California must move up the birthday cutoff date requiring children entering kindergarten to turn 5 by Nov. 1 instead of Dec. 2. The cutoff date will be moved up a month in each of the next two years so all children entering school in 2014 will have celebrated their fifth birthday by Sept. 1.
Schools from now on must offer a pre-kindergarten curriculum for those children with fall birthdays to introduce them to reading, writing and math. Schools can open a separate class for 4-year-olds, teach them with a different curriculum in the regular kindergarten class or hold a class that kids from several schools can attend.
About 40,000 children are participating in some 2,000 transitional kindergarten classes across the state this year. At the end of the three-year rollout, an estimated 125,000 children will be enrolled.
The program will not incur costs for schools as they will receive the same per-pupil funding that they would have if those 4-year-olds had enrolled in regular kindergarten, said state Sen. Joe Simitian, the Palo Alto Democrat who authored the legislation.
Simitian said charters were specifically included in the law under direction from the state Department of Finance so he’s puzzled both at their legal interpretation and why they wouldn’t want to offer a program that research has shown benefits kids.
"I’m just baffled that charter schools would take that point of view. These are the same kids you’ve been teaching for years,” said Simitian, who is co-sponsoring a companion bill (AB1853) to create a course to train transitional kindergarten teachers with private funds.
But charter schools are loath to launch a program that may mean spending money on teacher training, a new curriculum and classroom space, although none of those items is required.
"It’s a pretty tough year to implement a new program,” said Miller of the charter association.
Miller said the association’s legal team concluded that if schools do not accept funding for the 4-year-olds, they don’t have to offer the program. Furthermore, an association memo to members states that transitional kindergarten is not a requirement for individual schools, but school districts.
Miller said the association asked for guidance from the state Education Department on the issue in October and has not heard back.
Hefner said it’s up to local school districts to oversee the change and the Education Department doesn’t have enforcement power.
It’s still unclear if districts, or other charter school authorizers, will take any action against charters that don’t implement transitional kindergarten, but charters’ operating licenses are subject to renewal by school boards and can be revoked. Parent complaints and financial irregularities are the main drivers of district action against charters, a 2004 report by the state Legislative Analyst’s Office found.
Steve Zimmer, board member of Los Angeles Unified School District, noted that districts have other non-compliance issues with charters. He is proposing an independent Charter Oversight Committee to deal with regulating charter schools, he said. Los Angeles Unified hosts about 200 charter schools serving 110,000 children, the most in the nation.
"The charter law was developed to provide more freedom to develop your own curriculum and staffing,” he said. "I don’t think they meant you don’t have to do transitional kindergarten. If you call yourself a public school, you need to serve every child that comes to your door.”
Charter organizations are taking different approaches to transitional kindergarten.
Aspire Public Schools, which operates 24 elementary schools in California, plans to launch a program next year, said Elise Darwish, chief academic officer. Rocketship Education, which runs seven elementary schools in the San Jose area, said it is not currently offering the program, while KIPP LA said it enrolled no 4-year-olds who met this year’s cutoff requirements at its three elementary schools in Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, Celerity Educational Group, which runs seven elementary schools in low-income Los Angeles neighborhoods, chose to launch transitional kindergarten.
Teachers say they have seen fewer children repeating grades if they started school with a transitional kindergarten program.
"We are introducing and exposing them to everything they learn in kindergarten but they don’t have to master the skills until the end of kindergarten,” said teacher Amy Weisberg at Topanga Elementary Charter School in Los Angeles. "There’s a huge difference between 4- and 5-year-olds.”
Preschool advocates say charters will eventually have to offer transitional kindergarten to stay competitive and to meet parent demand.
"We hope they’ll see the advantages of offering it,” said Scott Moore, senior policy adviser for advocacy organization Preschool California.