MENLO PARK -- Three years ago, state lawmakers expanded public education by adding a pre-kindergarten class, California's first new grade level since 1891.
Educators widely praised the move, and new transitional kindergarten classes emerged throughout the state.
However, there has been a holdout: The tiny Las Lomitas School District in San Mateo County, bolstered by what it considers to be a loophole in the law, may be the only district in the state that is resisting. Its stance has put it in conflict with state officials and caused confusion among parents. And one state lawmaker this week pledged to correct what he called an error.
"It's an optional program that wasn't the right thing for our district," argued Richard Ginn, the district's board president. "I'm not against the movement for universal pre-kindergarten, but there's no data that it's the right way to spend taxpayers' money."
The state Department of Education and the law's author, former state Sen. Joe Simitian, of Palo Alto, disagree.
"The clear intent and expectation is that transitional kindergarten is required," Simitian said.
But intent may be different from the letter of the law. While the bill's original language clearly ordered districts to offer the new class, as enacted the law merely specifies what districts must do in order to procure state funding for the new program.
Because of that, the law doesn't apply to property-tax-wealthy school districts such as Las Lomitas that take in enough local revenue to operate without state help, argues the district's attorney, Eugene Whitlock of the San Mateo County Counsel's office. Las Lomitas serves 1,400 students in the western portion of Menlo Park, plus parts of Atherton, Woodside and Portola Valley.
On Tuesday, the board of the neighboring Menlo Park City School District, a K-8 district like Las Lomitas, affirmed an earlier decision to eliminate its transitional kindergarten class in 2014-15. Both districts face the challenge of fitting growing enrollment on limited campus space.
The problem, board President Terry Thygesen said, is that the transitional kindergarten program singles out the wrong kids: those who will be the oldest in their class when they do enter kindergarten.
State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, said he plans to introduce legislation to clarify the law -- and also expand mandatory pre-kindergarten to cover all 4-year-olds, a goal legislative Democrats endorsed Wednesday.
Transitional kindergarten is a byproduct of a 2010 law written by Simitian that raised the starting age for kindergarten. For decades, California children needed to turn 5 by Dec. 2 the year they enter kindergarten. The law progressively moved the cutoff date back a month in each of three years. From next year on, children will need to turn 5 by Sept. 1 to start kindergarten. Those with birthdays between the old cutoff date and the new one qualify to spend a year in transitional kindergarten before entering kindergarten.
Simitian lauded the law's success: "We're going to see more than 100,000 kids enrolled in TK next year. For me, that's nothing but good news."
The decisions of the Las Lomitas and Menlo Park districts have frustrated parents of children who will be left out.
"We've come to expect Las Lomitas to be on the leading edge, a leader in academic performance," said Christine Kiekhaefer, of Menlo Park, whose daughter will turn 5 this coming fall. "Here's a big new progressive program in elementary education that it seems is passing us by."
½While Ginn said no parents complained when the Las Lomitas board made a decision in May 2012 not to offer transitional kindergarten, parents say that's because the district never announced its move -- a decision that's not even reflected in board minutes.
Only after a community newspaper recently drew attention to the issue did Las Lomitas post on its website that it doesn't offer the pre-kindergarten class.
"It just seems there's a level of arrogance: 'We're an award-winning school; we don't think this law is a good thing, so we're going to skirt it,'" said another Las Lomitas parent, who didn't want to be identified for fear of alienating board members.
Rob Maynes, a Menlo Park district parent, said, "It's crazy these two are not going to offer transitional kindergarten, especially given their financial situation." His 4-year-old daughter would qualify for the class next fall.
Just trying to start kindergarten early isn't a solution. "Those kids on the young side of 5 need a different kind of program," said Amy Stellhorn, whose son will just miss the kindergarten cutoff next year.
But short of filing suit, parents find they have little recourse. The California Department of Education asserts that any district offering kindergarten must also offer transitional kindergarten, but spokeswoman Pam Slater said the state has no enforcement power.
"It's up to local school districts to oversee this change," she said.
However, Thygesen of Menlo Park said schools should spend money for the children most in need. So in creating a new class, "the kids I would pick would be the youngest ones." Instead, under current law, children who have benefited from transitional kindergarten enter kindergarten not only with an extra year of preschool, but also with the advantage of being nearly a year older than their peers.
Ginn agreed. An extra year of preschool should be available to all students, not just one-quarter of the class, he said. Furthermore, he asked, "Why do something for the oldest fourth of the class?"
It's not certain whether the two districts' rebellion will spread. Neighboring Woodside and Portola Valley elementary districts offer transitional kindergarten. So does the Palo Alto Unified School District, which in addition to transitional kindergarten offers a Young Fives class for children not developmentally ready for kindergarten, and a spring pre-kindergarten program for children who have not attended preschool.
Hill said that if his bill expanding preschool becomes part of the 2014-15 budget, it would take effect next school year. "Preschool or pre-kindergarten is an important and crucial educational opportunity," he said, "that we should expect all our school districts to provide."
Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.
Transitional kindergarten is a pre-kindergarten program for children not quite old enough to start kindergarten. This year, the program includes those who turned 5 from Oct. 1 to Dec. 2. Next year, as the kindergarten cutoff date moves back a month, it will include students with birthdays from Sept. 1 to Dec. 2. Students in transitional kindergarten continue into regular kindergarten the following school year. The program began in 2012, as a result of a state law changing the minimum age for entering kindergarten.