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Education

Gov. Newsom vetos mandatory kindergarten law

Judy Nguyen’s lesson Monday afternoon was all about learning letters.

She has a class of 25 kindergarteners at the High Tech High Mesa elementary school in Clairemont Mesa.

Aayan, 5, is one of her students who enjoys putting pencil to paper. "My favorite part of school is the writer’s workshop 'cuz you get a long time to do it," he said.

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California children haven’t been required to go to kindergarten before entering first grade.

This year, the state legislators tried to change that by passing Senate Bill 70 following a significant drop of 12% in kindergarten enrollment during the COVID crisis shutdowns.

They had also hoped to close the academic gap for students from marginalized communities.

But Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, vetoed legislation Sunday night that would have required children to attend kindergarten — whether through homeschooling, public or private school — before entering first grade at a public school.

As he has with other recent legislative vetoes, Newsom cited the costs associated with providing mandatory kindergarten, about $268 million annually, which he said was not accounted for in the California budget.

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Monique Knight, director of High Tech High Mesa Elementary, said she hoped the governor might reconsider the value of mandatory kindergarten.

“All of what they do is authentic work. Their play is authentic. Their talk is authentic," Knight said. "They think about what they’ve learned at home and in their communities and they bring it into the school."

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M.G. Perez
Kindergarten students work on writing in class, Monday, at High Tech High Mesa Elementary, San Diego, Calif., on September 26, 2022.

Newsom has supported similar legislation in the past. Last year, he signed a package of education bills, including one transitioning the state to universal pre-K starting in the 2025-26 school year. But the state's Department of Finance opposed the mandatory kindergarten bill, stating it would strain funds by adding up to 20,000 new public school students.

Proponents of mandatory kindergarten say it could help close the academic opportunity gap for low-income students and students of color, as well as help children, develop important social skills before the 1st grade. The bill was introduced after K-12 attendance rates dropped during the pandemic and some students struggled with online learning.

Kindergarten enrollment in California dropped nearly 12% in the 2020-21 academic year compared to the previous year, according to the state Department of Education. Nationwide, public school enrollment dropped by 3 percent in 2020-21 compared to the previous school year, with preschool and kindergarten enrollment dropping at higher rates, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Research from the Economic Policy Institute shows that disparities in academic opportunity begin as early as kindergarten. Children who develop their social and emotional skills by the time they reach kindergarten age can be more likely to go to college, according to a 2015 study by the American Public Health Association.

“The pandemic led to a startling drop in K-12 enrollment, raising concerns about a widening opportunity gap,” said Jessica Lall, president and CEO of the Central City Association of Los Angeles.

While the legislation to make kindergarten mandatory passed overwhelmingly in both houses of the Legislature, Sen. Brian Jones of San Diego County opposed it, saying the state should focus instead on education reform.

Newsom also vetoed separate legislation that would have required every school with kindergarten to offer at least one full-day class option, saying it “will create one-time and ongoing costs in the hundreds of millions of dollars," noting that the 2022-23 budget included $4 billion in funding for expanded learning opportunities.

Back at High Tech High Mesa Elementary, Nguyen remains optimistic for the future students she will teach.

“I hope that more families enroll them in kindergarten and have them be here. It’s so important. I noticed such a big difference in the students that didn’t have the kindergarten year and the students that do have it," Nguyen said.

Gov. Newsom vetos mandatory kindergarten law

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