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California’s bold plan: adding a full school year before kindergarten. How will it work?

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Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed far-reaching, multibillion-dollar education initiatives — including a full year of schooling for all 4-year-olds and enrichment programs and tutoring for students in low-income communitiesaimed at those he sees as most in need in the wake of the pandemic.

If approved by the Legislature, the governor’s plans, which he pencils out at $20 billion over several years, would represent an ambitious expansion of the mission for California’s education system.

Funded by a massive influx of state income tax revenue, Newsom’s proposal first and foremost targets universal transitional kindergarten, promising an additional year on the front end of the kindergarten-through-12th -grade public school experience.

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But it also includes $1 billion annually for additional after-school and summer programs in low-income communities — building up to $5 billion. The governor will formally reveal his full budget proposal on Friday.

The spending agenda expands the reach of the state’s education system by the billions:

  • $4 billion for youth mental health support that educators say is sorely needed for students after a year of isolation in distance learning
  • More than $3.3 billion for teacher and school employee training
  • $3 billion for “community schools,” where education is integrated with healthcare and mental health services.

The state would also establish a $500 college savings account for students from a low-income family with an additional $500 for foster youth and those who are homeless. The $2-billion program would be funded mostly by a portion of the state’s share of money from the American Rescue Plan, signed into law by President Biden in March. It could provide a savings account for as many as 3.8 million schoolchildren.

The emphasis on early education, Newsom said, is appropriate given the experience of the state’s youngest learners.

“It’s a readiness gap as much — more — than it is an achievement gap,” Newsom said. “People are not left behind as often as they … start behind.”

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The expanded transitional kindergarten program would begin to roll out in the 2022-23 school year, phasing in over three years.

The plan was greeted enthusiastically by Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the state Board of Education and a Newsom ally.

“This set of investments and reforms will catapult California forward and really allow us to reinvent the public school system in this state,” said Darling-Hammond, who appeared with Newsom at Elkhorn Elementary School in the North Monterey County Unified School District.

That school was chosen because it provides services for students and families from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. — a model, officials said, for what the governor’s proposal anticipates.

The funding proposal would add to an unaccustomed flood of state and federal resources as educators plot a recovery from yearlong pandemic-forced campus closures.

Even without this proposed infusion, Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second-largest school system, was looking at one-time aid well in excess of $5 billion since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Enormous amounts already have been spent on safety measures, technology, and student and staff support; enormous amounts remain to be spent.

The state plan would accelerate what L.A. Unified already is trying to do, said school board member Nick Melvoin.

“LAUSD already provides more early education opportunities than we receive funding for,” Melvoin said. “The additional state funding for 4-year-olds would free up nearly $40 million of the district’s budget that we could use to meet our own goal of universal preschool even sooner than 2024.”

Over the past year, the tremendous influx of state and federal funding for schools was one-time money provided in direct response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In contrast, Newsom’s proposal embodies a permanent expansion of the state’s education offerings and strategy.

His focus lines up with many experts, who note that an early start to academic and social development has been out of reach for many children, especially those from low-income families.

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The pandemic has exacerbated such inequities, they said. Moreover, many families simply kept young children out of kindergarten and preschool during the closures rather than position their youngsters in front of a computer for schooling.

“Kindergarten enrollment dropped tremendously over the past year,” said Hana Ma, senior policy analyst at Education Trust–West, an Oakland-based research and advocacy group. “Universal [transitional kindergarten] is a tremendous opportunity to build up young learners’ social and emotional skills.”

Experts estimate the transitional kindergarten program would serve almost 300,000 children when it reaches full capacity in 2024. Because they are part of local school districts, transitional kindergarten teachers make about the same as kindergarten teachers, and significantly more than preschool teachers who serve the same age group.

The phase-in will begin with children who turn 5 between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2 of 2022. The target age will move up by several months each year through the 2024-25 school year.

The gradually increasing eligibility will disappoint parents whose 4-year-olds won’t receive the benefit. Eventually, however, the governor’s office said it envisions up to nine hours a day of supervision, which would include three hours to develop academic skills.

Children from low-income families already qualify for public preschool, through a mix of district-based transitional kindergarten, state preschool and the federally funded Head Start program. Yet tens of thousands still can’t find a spot, and those who do risk losing it if their family’s income improves.

Newsom’s announcement came during a third consecutive day of traveling across California to preview portions of his yet to be presented state budget, which benefits from $75.7 billion in unexpected tax revenues — equal to more than half of all state general fund spending in the fiscal year that ends June 30. The governor announced plans on Tuesday for $12 billion to address homelessness and on Monday outlined an expansion of the program offering $600 stimulus checks to residents.

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The revenue windfall represents an about-face from last spring, when budget advisors expected the pandemic to throw state finances into a severe deficit. Those predictions failed to materialize after California’s high earners paid record taxes on capital gains from investments.

Spending on K-12 schools and community colleges in California is governed by formulas that provide public schools the largest share of general fund revenues. Newsom’s budget, according to advisors, projects guaranteed school funding will surpass estimates in his January spending plan by $17.7 billion — pushing education spending to a record $93.7 billion in the coming fiscal year.

Newsom’s new education plan will make use of dollars that he is required to spend on education. He could simply have forwarded the funds to local school systems — giving them more spending discretion. Instead, he decided to leave an imprint by directing the use of this money.

Providing transitional kindergarten will be costly, an estimated $2.7 billion a year.

Transitional kindergarten was created by the Legislature in 2010 under a plan that tightened the birth-date rules for children turning 5 and entering kindergarten. Currently, only students who will turn 5 between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2 are eligible for state-sponsored transitional kindergarten.

In response to the governor’s remarks, a coalition of parent groups welcomed the proposal while urging the governor to ensure that the entire state returns to full-time, five-day-a-week instruction. A Times analysis estimates that 29% of elementary students and 16% of secondary students currently have that option — as most school systems continue to rely on remote learning at least part of the time.

The governor has stopped short of calling for a return-to-campus mandate. On Wednesday, however, he suggested that a resumption of a typical on-campus schedule could be codified into state law by June 30.

His plan also calls for robust independent study options — presumably for parents who are not yet ready to return their children to campus in the fall.

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