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Lance T. Izumi - Contributor
[Courtesty of Pacific Research Institute]

Lance Izumi is Director of Education Studies for the Pacific Research Institute and
Senior Fellow in California Studies. He is a leading expert in education policy and the author of several major PRI studies. [go to Izumi index]

An Idea Worth Considering
A simple notion to maximize education funds...
[Lance T. Izumi] 11/7/03

With another large budget deficit facing California in 2004-05, conventional thinking isn't going to get the fiscal job done. Even the sacred cow of education funding shouldn't be exempt from new and better scrutiny. Assemblywoman Sharon Runner (R-Lancaster) has an idea that would save hundreds of millions of dollars per year, but which challenges the way early education has been done in California for years.

Under state law, school districts must admit a child to kindergarten if that child will have his or her fifth birthday on or before December 2 of that school year, which means that some four-year-old children now enter kindergarten. Runner proposes that only children who have their fifth birthday on or before September 1 of that school year can enter kindergarten. Children younger than five, with some exceptions, would have to wait until the next year. The fiscal effect of this change would be dramatic.

The Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO) estimates that Runner's proposal would reduce kindergarten enrollment by 20 percent in 2003-04. By reducing the number of children entering school, the average-daily-attendance (ADA) figure used to calculate the state's education funding obligations under Proposition 98, which guarantees a minimum funding level for education, would be lowered. The lower growth in ADA would produce a smaller Prop. 98 minimum guarantee, which the LAO estimates would have resulted in a $600-million savings in 2003-04.

The LAO also observed that Runner's proposal would reduce the cost of K-12 programs because school districts would have fewer students to serve. Fewer students means that the amount the state sends down to local districts in the form of revenue limits, which are unrestricted funds that districts can spend as they see fit, would be reduced. The LAO estimates savings of $550 million. That savings figure would continue per year for 13 years since the lower school population would be felt in successive grades until that class of children graduated from high school.

Also, the LAO estimates reductions in categorical spending, which are funds earmarked by the state for specific purposes such as class-size reduction, of $200 million per year for 13 years. Revenue-limit and categorical-spending savings together would total $750 million per year.

Thus, although education would be getting $600 million less per year due to a lowered Prop. 98 guarantee, revenue-limit and categorical-spending savings of $750 million per year means that education would actually have $150 million in "excess savings" that could be redirected to whatever education priorities Governor Schwarzenegger and the legislature choose. The governor-elect, who has said he wants to protect education funding, can do so and trim spending at the same time.

Opponents argue that Runner's proposal denies some children access to kindergarten. Yet most states have an earlier birthday cutoff date for kindergarten than California. Further, parents who believe that their children are ready for kindergarten at a younger age can use a waiver clause in Runner's proposal. While determinations of developmentally appropriate learning shouldn't be set in stone, there is research to show that children perform better if they enter school at a somewhat older age.

California's current crisis demands that lawmakers rethink all aspects of government policy. Assemblywoman Runner has offered an idea that should be part of that rethinking process.

copyright 2003 Pacific Research Institute



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