Parents Unnerved With Kindergarten on Hold : Schools: Wilson's proposed change in age limit puts many families' plans for work, child care in limbo.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gov. Pete Wilson's proposal to help balance the state budget by keeping thousands of children out of kindergarten this fall is playing havoc with the carefully made plans of thousands of California families for work, money, transportation and child care.

If Wilson has his way, only children who turn 5 by Sept. 1 will be able to enter kindergarten in the fall. Kindergarten is now open to any child whose fifth birthday falls before Dec. 1.

The age-limit change would disqualify more than one-fourth of the 400,000 children who had been expected to enroll in this fall's kindergarten class--including about 8,000 in Orange County and 31,000 in Los Angeles County--while saving the state about $335 million in per-pupil support payments that would have gone to school districts.

Now, only six weeks before most schools reopen, parents who long ago gave up their child's cherished spot in a good day-care facility or preschool, anticipating kindergarten enrollment, are scrambling for rare and expensive spots in private schools.

Other parents, who contemplate keeping their children at home for another year or re-enrolling them in preschool, worry that their eager-to-learn children will not be sufficiently stimulated.

Still others now must rethink transportation, work and baby-sitting arrangements.

Most of the last-minute options strain the checkbook, just when many parents were hoping that public school kindergarten might provide financial relief after years of expensive child care or preschool, or give a stay-at-home parent freedom to seek a job.

Then there are parents like Benjamin Garcia of Santa Ana, whose son has limited proficiency in English and who worries that Wilson's plan will deny his child a head start in learning the language skills he will need in order to keep up when he faces reading, writing and arithmetic in the early elementary years.

There is emotional fallout for the children too. Parents say their 4-year-olds are hurt, disappointed and bewildered. Jeanne Armstrong, 41, of Seal Beach said her daughter, Brittany, learned her kindergarten future was in doubt when she saw a television ad, made by opponents of Wilson's plan, showing a tearful girl being turned away from school.

"She said, 'Why doesn't Gov. Wilson want me to go to kindergarten? What did I do wrong?' She's been crying over this," Armstrong said.

Armstrong is a single parent bereft of child support and a teacher whose district has warned of possible cuts in pay and benefits. So she longed for the anticipated $2,000 to $3,000 savings that would come from moving Brittany out of private preschool, which costs her about $4,800 a year, into public kindergarten and afternoon day-care. She had hoped to use the savings for a down payment on a house or a trip to Scotland with Brittany. Now, she says, she has given up both dreams.

Instead, Armstrong has found a cheaper house to rent and is considering taking a loan from her credit union so that Brittany, who turns 5 in late October, can attend private kindergarten if Wilson's plan becomes law. She has spent hours on the telephone, but still has not found an opening for Brittany.

"It's been horrendous," she said.

Armstrong is hardly alone. Ann Fenton, assistant director of Brittany's preschool, Under The Rainbow Children's Center in Seal Beach, said many worried parents have been inquiring about their options in the event their children cannot enroll in kindergarten. Like most preschools, Under The Rainbow is already booked up for this fall, she said.

"They are feeling that their kids are ready for kindergarten, that they've been getting prepared for it for a couple of months now, and they are concerned about the child coming back (to preschool), feeling that somehow they've done something wrong," Fenton said. "The kids don't understand about governments and budgets."

Jane Gordon, director of Whittier Village Children's Center, said many parents are anxious and feeling up in the air because they don't know whether the proposal will become law or be abandoned.

"These are parents who have cut bait with their preschool, enrolled their children in kindergarten, arranged for extended day care afterward," Gordon said. "What do they do? Do they have to find child-care again? Where do they go? It's a whole new ballgame."

Some school administrators are concerned that children from troubled homes will be the most seriously harmed if Wilson's plan comes to pass.

"In some families, unfortunately, home is not a good place to be. School is the nurturing place for the mind, the body, the self-esteem," said Lupe O'Leary, principal of Carver Elementary School in Santa Ana. "Kids like that shouldn't have to wait another year to get into school."

Many parents are still unaware that their children might be barred from kindergarten. Denise Knight, program director of Pasadena Head Start, the federally funded program for low-income families, said most of her parents were surprised when she informed them of Wilson's proposal recently.

"There are a number of parents who aren't going to know what hit them," Knight said. "When they get home at night, they're tired. They don't read this stuff in the papers. They have enrolled their children (in kindergarten), so they think they're all set."

Because Pasadena Head Start has received federal funds to expand, Knight said that kids in her program could continue for another year if Wilson's plan disqualifies them from public school. But it is unlikely that many other Head Start programs in Los Angeles could do likewise, since they already have waiting lists of 100 to 200 children, she said.

Knight said that low-income parents will be hit especially hard by the plan.

"What a lot of our parents count on is that when the youngest goes off to school, they can finally work or go to school themselves," Knight said. "If this goes through and they can't make real quick arrangements for their kids, those plans go out the window."

Stephanie Houston, 30, is a single Pasadena mother who has been raising her two children on $633-a-month welfare payments. Her youngest, Phillip, now attends Head Start, and she is furious that he might be barred from kindergarten. Houston had made intricate, low-cost arrangements for Phillip's care after kindergarten class so she could get a job.

"That's the only way I could get the time to work," she said. "At Head Start, he could only go for three hours a day, then he was home. Now if he has to go back to Head Start, what am I going to do? Stay on welfare? And I've heard about the way they're trying to cut welfare. What am I going to do if they do that?"

Although Wilson's proposal has little support among legislators and has come under heavy attack from educators and parents, he shows no sign of wavering. Mike Kilbourn, a legislative analyst for the Orange County Department of Education, said he is pessimistic that the kindergarten proposal will disappear anytime soon because few lawmakers seem inclined to compromise to resolve the budget standoff.

"It's like they're rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic," he said. "There is no movement on any side of the debate. The governor seems pretty much set."

Wilson and his top deputies have repeatedly defended the proposal, pointing to studies that argue that many children enter kindergarten before they are ready. The fact that the age-limit change would be implemented on such short notice is not ideal, but the savings it will produce are badly needed, they say.

"We would be the first to admit that the timing issue is a difficult one," said Ray M. Reinhard, Wilson's assistant secretary of child development and education. "It is a difficult decision made in a raft of equally or less palatable alternatives. But the stark reality is that unless we bring the budget into line with our resources this year, this problem is going to come back year after year."

The California Teachers Assn. agrees that children should be 5 by Sept. 1 in order to enroll in kindergarten but opposes Wilson's plan because it makes the change so suddenly. The kindergarten proposal has infuriated the state superintendent of schools, Bill Honig, who called it "the dumbest idea I've ever heard."

"This is bad for kids," said William L. Rukeyser, spokesman for the state Department of Education. "Gov. Wilson has been the prevention governor, talking about the importance of preschool and getting kids into education early. Those things are very sound. Then to turn around and kick these kids in the teeth for some budget gimmick, and to do so in such a precipitous manner, that's not acceptable."

Among educators, there is a lively, continuing debate about the merits of beginning kindergarten at a later age.

Looking into the eyes of their bright, eager children, however, many parents feel that the youngsters are ripe for the new challenges of "real" school. Such is the view of Jan Carriere, 35, of Rowland Heights, whose son, Kyle, turns 5 on Sept. 3.

"I have enrolled my son in kindergarten and I feel like he's ready," Carriere said. "He knows his ABCs, his colors. He knows how to count up to 10. He can write his name. He needs a challenge. It's unfair to him to say he can't go."

Linda Alkana, 45, of Seal Beach said that keeping her daughter in preschool another year would make her feel "almost like she had flunked a grade before she got into school."

The possibility that some children will be shut out of kindergarten has already turned their parents' summers topsy-turvy. Alkana, a college lecturer, has surrendered many of the hours she had hoped to devote to writing a book.

"I am freaking out. Many of my friends are in shock too," she said. "I am spending all my time on the phone calling private schools." Alkana has not yet found an opening for her daughter.

Paying for private school, which can run from $2,000 to $13,000 a year, or for another year of preschool, which often costs $4,000 to $5,000 a year, can mean scrimping and saving. But it can also create a domino effect.

Debi Monteros, 34, of Huntington Beach, a self-employed word processor operator, said she will have to take in more work so she and her husband can afford private kindergarten for 4-year-old Krista. That will cut into the time she can spend with Krista and her 1-year-old son. Monteros will also have to search for a new baby-sitter, since her current sitter cannot work additional hours.

Many of the children who could be excluded under Wilson's plan could have walked to nearby public kindergartens, but will now have to be driven to preschool, private school or day care.

Some parents worry that once they enroll their child in private school, the transition to public school could be difficult. Don Krotee of Newport Beach said that after only one year of private kindergarten, his daughter, Pascal, could be too far ahead of her peers to justify reuniting her with first graders at Newport Heights Elementary.

"So we get sort of sucked into keeping her in private school," he said.

Public schools, already strapped for cash and awaiting resolution of the budget crisis to learn how much money the state will grant them, face losing even more money under Wilson's kindergarten proposal. Fewer students means less revenue from the state, and teaching staffs would have to be pared down or reassigned accordingly.

Garden Grove Unified, for instance, stands to lose about 800 of the 3,346 kindergartners expected this fall if the proposal goes through. Translated into money, that means $2.4 million less that had been earmarked not just for kindergarten students, but for campuswide expenses such as counselors, transportation and speech pathologists, said Associate Supt. Ron Walter.

In districts with some schools on a year-round schedule, such as Santa Ana or Los Angeles, some teachers and administrators feared they might have to remove from class the children who are beginning kindergarten this summer. But Reinhard said the change in eligibility would affect only those scheduled to begin kindergarten in the fall.

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