Opinion: Adding a new grade level for 'young fives' challenges districts

Kindergarteners at La Jolla Elementary school. Photo: Stephen Simpson
Kindergarteners at La Jolla Elementary school. Photo: Stephen Simpson

By Marsha Sutton


The recent passage of the Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2010 has greater implications than simply advancing the date by which children must turn 5 years old to enter kindergarten. It also means a mandate for school districts throughout the state to develop and implement a transitional kindergarten program for children with fall birthdays who will be too young to start kindergarten once the law kicks in.

Current California law states that children must turn 5 by Dec. 2 to start kindergarten that fall. This means that 4-year-old children with birthdays in September, October and November can enter kindergarten — and are often enrolled in classes with kids who are 5, 6 or even 7 years old.

The legislation, Senate Bill 1381, advances the date by which children must turn 5 by one month per year for three years, beginning in 2012, when the cutoff date will be Nov. 1. In 2013, the date will be Oct. 1. And in 2014, the date by which children must be 5 to enter kindergarten will be Sept. 1, where it will remain.

Roundly applauded, this change has been sought for years by teachers, administrators, school boards, legislators, parents and related statewide organizations and agencies, who all contend that younger kindergartners are more likely to struggle academically and socially and have higher rates of kindergarten retention.

However, a component of this legislation adds complexity to the straightforward nature of the original intent. Because SB-1381 also requires that a transitional kindergarten program be established beginning in the year 2012 for 4-year-old children with fall birthdays, questions and confusion are emerging. The devil is in the details on this provision.

Without thinking too long and hard about this, obvious questions — about costs, funding, curriculum, teacher qualifications, classroom space and enrollment details — come to mind:

  • In 2012, will the program only be open to children turning 5 in November? Or can children turning 5 in Oct. or Sept. enroll?
  • In 2013, will the program only be open for children turning 5 in Oct. or Nov.? Or can children with Sept. birthdays enroll?
  • Can parents who want to hold their summer birthday children back a year enroll them in transitional kindergarten?
  • How will districts meet the need for more specialized certificated teachers and more classroom space?
  • Since kindergarten is not mandatory in California, how will transitional kindergarten work?
  • Is there a state-approved transitional kindergarten curriculum?
  • Adding an entirely new grade level will cost districts to evaluate and purchase materials and curriculum. Is there money for that?
  • Some say transitional kindergarten is mandated in the new law for 15 years (essentially permanent) so that certificated teachers can be assured of long-term employment. Will districts have the option of terminating the program after 15 years?
  • The program, said to be “cost-neutral,” is estimated to save $700 million annually — or $9.1 billion in cumulative savings over the 13 years it will take as a smaller kindergarten cohort transitions through the K-12 system. Is this enough money to cover the cost for districts to implement the program?
  • Can the money for this program be diverted by the legislature at any time?
  • What are the chances that this will become another unfunded mandate?


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