Charters and state at odds over Transitional Kindergarten

The first lesson that the state’s youngest students may learn is about the meaning of words – specifically, words in the state education code that may or may not give these children access to Transitional Kindergarten in charter schools.
The California Department of Education maintains that any charter school offering kindergarten must provide Transitional Kindergarten, or TK. “Our lawyers affirmed it verbally,” said Tina Jung, spokesperson for the California Department of Education. “To us, it’s clear that public schools and charter schools must offer Transitional Kindergarten. This is the law; it’s what’s best for kids.”
The California Charter Schools Association takes the position that the law “regarding Transitional Kindergarten does not require charter schools to offer Transitional Kindergarten.” The Association has told its member schools that it’s up to each of them to decide whether to offer TK. The State Department of Education has not sent any memo or letters to charter schools explaining its legal opinion.
How Transitional Kindergarten works. Source: Preschool California. (Click to enlarge).Before slogging through the education code, here’s a quick refresher on the TK law. Almost two years ago, in September 2010, then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law SB 1381, the Kindergarten Readiness Act. The Act does two things: It moves up the kindergarten entry age by one month a year over the next three years, so this year children will have to turn five by November 1 to enroll in kindergarten, next year by October 1, and by September 1 from 2014-15 and on; and it creates Transitional Kindergarten just for the children born between the old cutoffdate of December 2 and the new cutoff date for the school year.
The Act doesn’t add a new group of students to school; it creates a new curriculum for the youngest kids who would otherwise be in regular kindergarten. Districts have flexibility in the way they implement the program. They can run individual TK classes in schools, have split kindergarten/TK classes with age-appropriate instruction for the younger students, or they can offer TK at just a few schools as long as it’s open to all students in the district whose parents want to enroll them.
Now, on to the confusing part. The California Education Code, Section 48000, says the following about TK: (c) As a condition of receipt of apportionment for pupils in a transitional kindergarten program pursuant to subdivision (g) of Section 46300, a school district or charter school shall ensure the following: Then it goes on to provide the new birthday cutoff dates described above.
It’s those first seven words that are at issue in this debate, “As a condition of receipt of apportionment….” An official in the Assembly said that refers to how TK is funded, which is based on the same average daily attendance (ADA) calculation as all other students. If a school offers TK, it receives the same amount of funding from the state for each of those students as it does for its traditional kindergarteners.
Charter school officials interpret those words to mean that offering TK is voluntary. In a series of comments made in reference to an earlier EdSource Today article, Eric Premack, the founder and executive director of the Charter Schools Development Center, wrote that “the law says that offering TK is required as a condition of receiving TK funding. One reasonable interpretation of this is that, if a district takes the funding, it must admit TK students and that if a district opts not to take the bait, it doesn’t have to admit TK students or run TK programs.”
No one has a count of how many charters are offering TK, but one of the largest charter operators in California, Aspire Public Schools, has decided to hold off a year and offer TK next fall. Aspire has 12,000 students in 34 public charter schools in California; the majority of which are elementary or K-8 schools.
“Aspire’s understanding is that Transitional Kindergarten is not currently a requirement for charter schools in California. We plan to offer a Transitional Kindergarten program in 2013-14 and look forward to the opportunity to partner with students and families even earlier as we work together to prepare each of our students for college,” said Elise Darwish, Aspire’s chief academic officer, in an email.
Vielka McFarlane, the president and CEO of Celerity Educational Group, which operates eight schools in Southern California, said their legal department concurred with the California Charter Schools Association’s reading of the law. But Celerity is offering TK at all of its schools. “We’re choosing to do it because of the community we serve,” said McFarlane.
Celerity is the group that successfully took its petition for a charter school in Compton, one of the worst-performing districts in the state, to the board of the Los Angeles County Office of Education after the Compton school board rejected it. At all but one of its schools, between 98 and 100 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, a measure of economic hardship. It’s about 90 percent at the other school. “If we didn’t offer it those children would have to wait another year. Some kids need as much exposure to school and school standards as they can get, so this would be detrimental to them,” McFarlane said.
Last year, there were nearly 30,200 kindergarten students enrolled in 514 charter schools throughout the state. The Department of Education doesn’t have figures on how many of those children would have been candidates for TK, or how many charters are offering TK this year, and the department isn’t aggressively monitoring the situation. Jung said that unless someone files a complaint, the Department can’t address it. “It’s unfortunate that they’re not offering it,” she said.  “This is an issue that may have to be resolved by a judge.”

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