Will tots be older, wiser?
James Rufus Koren, Staff Writer
Created: 09/01/2010 08:17:35 PM PDT

Over the next several years, kindergartners in California will be getting older.

This school year, a child can start kindergarten as long as he or she turns 5 by Dec. 2. In the 2014-15 school year, children will have to turn 5 by Sept. 1, thanks to a bill approved late Tuesday night by the state Legislature.

Education officials say the earlier cutoff is good for students, but some lawmakers and scholars say they don’t understand the state’s plan for spending money that will be saved by shifting the start dates.

“Students who are a little older are a little more mature and more ready to tackle the rigors of kindergarten,” said Jason Angle, director of elementary education for the Fontana Unified School District. “Students need to basically finish kindergarten reading and students a few months older are more developmentally ready.”

Beginning in the 2012-13 school year, the cutoff will move from Dec. 2 to Nov. 1. In the 2013-14 school year it will move to Oct. 1, then to Sept. 1 for the 2014-15 school year.

By switching the dates each of year, the state will save an estimated $700 million per year because of smaller class sizes – the three classes that start kindergarten will have 11 months’ worth of students rather than a full year’s.

The bill that passed Tuesday by state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, calls for the savings to be used for “transitional kindergarten” programs for students born between Sept. 1 and Dec. 2 – that is, for children who would have started kindergarten under the current cutoff date.

But state Sen. George Runner, R-Lancaster, who represents Victorville, Hesperia and Apple Valley and has long been a proponent of raising the kindergarten age, said using savings for transitional kindergarten doesn’t make sense.

“It’s a stupid way to do it,” said Runner, who voted for the bill.

Stupid, he said, because the transitional kindergarten programs – something akin to preschool – will only be available for students with September, October and November birthdays. Those students will be the oldest kindergartners once the cutoff date is changed, meaning they should need less help, not more.

“At some point, you’re going to say we’re choosing to educate this group of kids – who will become the oldest students – and at the same time we’re increasing class sizes or we’re laying off teachers,” Runner said. “This doesn’t make sense.”

Gisele Ragusa, a professor at the USC Rossier School of Education, said moving the cutoff to September is good, but agreed with Runner that the transitional kindergarten plan doesn’t make sense because students who turn 5 in September, October and November should be more capable of handling kindergarten the following year than students who turn 5 just a few months or weeks before school starts.

“It’s not theoretically sound,” she said. “I don’t understand why you wouldn’t just take that money and dump it into state-run preschools.”

Simitian said figuring out what to do with the $700 million in savings was the most contentious part of his bill and that Runner and Ragusa put forward a fair argument.

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