Monday, August 16, 2004

Episode Five: The Kindergarten Cop Strikes Back

When we last left them, Gövernor Schwarz and his sidekick Lone Star Yoda had cooked up a claimed $8 billion dollar savings for California's State Performance Review. They came up with this figure for their Federal Grant recommendation by selectively reading only the odd numbered sentences in a recent State Audit Board report and then multiplying together two large, irrelevant numbers.

What's the motivation? For der Göv, it seems to be vanity -- the well-known inability of any celebrity to admit to ever having done anything wrong. Gövernor Schwarz trashed the state's finances on his first day in office with an order that froze the car tax at 1/3rd its historic level. Popular, yes, but irresponsible. In order to cover up this $ 4 billion a year fiscal blunder, the Gov's Performance Review report now pretends to have found potential savings of $32,000,000,000.00 from reforming the state bureaucracy. Would that it were so! But we've already seen that one-fourth of the promised savings are a mirage, a special effects trick. Could it be that the other benefits promised in the Review are just more illusions created by Hollywood-style accounting? Now, as Episode Five begins, Schwarz and Yoda claim to have found billions of dollars hidden in California's kindergartens. Watch closely!

The Performance Review says it offers $4.1 billion in savings from education reforms. There are many sensible suggestions among the 33 recommendations, because many participating state employees took the Review at face value, rather than seeing it as a platform for more display of der Gövernor's enormous vanity. Most of the good ideas, however, don’t generate big bucks – the sums are either modest or “CBE” – “Can’t Be Estimated.” It turns out that two of the 33 recommendations account for 90% of the supposed savings: $2.7 billion from changing the enrollment date for kindergarten and $1.0 billion from a 45% hike in public college tuition for out-of-state students. Are these numbers real or are they more movie magic?

Four-year olds aren't very mature. Certainly not mature enough for the rigors of kindergarten. So the Review proposes to enhance their success by changing the enrollment date for kindergarten. The rules now let children start Kindergarten in the Fall as long as they will turn five years old by December 2nd. Let’s move the cut off to September 2nd, says Yoda's Report – meaning that kids born in September, October and November of year 2000 won’t begin kindergarten in Fall, 2005, but will have to wait until school starts a year later, in Fall 2006.

Yoda doesn’t say what the kids will do in the meantime or who will look after them, except for a vague suggestion that someone or other might give parents “advanced notice of the change in entry date and allow them adequate time to obtain childcare.” But so what? Think of how much money we’ll save, as long as we've got a place to sit when the music stops. Punting three months worth of kids -- maybe 90,000, maybe 115,000 -- over into next year means a 25% reduction in kindergarten enrollment for Fall ’05 and Spring ’06. There are
23,299.4 kindergarten teachers in California, so 25% fewer kids means about 6,000 layoffs -– and when support costs are added in, the total General Fund savings is $450 million, plus $210 million more for other education funds. Help the kids and save a bagful of money – what’s the matter with that? Sure, the pointy-headed professors over in the College of Education may argue that there may be benefits from an early start and dangers if parents can't afford day care or nursery school while waiting. But who listens to the quibbling of pedantic pedagogues?

Think, tho what happens *the year after*, when California schools will again face a full 12-month crop of youngsters -- those born between September 2000 and August 2001. Better re-hire those 6,000 teachers -- if we can find them. But don't you see, says Yoda? ("But see, you don't?") Now we’ll have 90,000 fewer first graders. When we rehire Mrs. Ingersol we can fire Ms. DeGaard, so the state will save another $660 million on first grade costs. And so forth and so on, for the next 12+ years, as this cohort of students, this "lost battalion" only 75% the size of the classes before it and after it, trudges its painful way towards graduation. Sort of like a pig in a python, only in reverse.

"Amusing but overly contrived Schwarzenegger vehicle blends elements of comedy, cop thriller, and romance."-- Leonard Maltin

Billy Bob Yoda was a bit coy in portraying this as a plan to help little kids. Actually, kindergarten is optional in California. “Compulsory full time education” (a/k/a "Democracy’s Answer to Fascism") legally begins at age six in this state, and Education Code Sec. 48010 directs that “A child shall be admitted to the first grade of an elementary school during the first month of a school year if the child will have his or her sixth birthday on or before December 2nd of that school year.” So unless Yoda tinkers some more with the education code, the kids born in the 3 lagged months of year 2000 will be drafted into the first grade in fall 2006, with no chance at all to taste the simple pleasures of kindergarten.

“This a complication I did not anticipate is.”

If California decided that changing the kindergarten enrollment date was indeed a good idea, it could be done gradually. It's easy to avoid that 25% lifetime dent in the birth class of 2000. Just adjust the enrollment date more slowly, a month at a time (eg. cutoff on November 2nd in 2005, on October 2nd in 2006, and so forth.) Good policy, perhaps, but it wouldn't produce that $2.7 billion number on the marquee -- to get that figure Yoda and Schwarzie have to play budget timing games with the lives of several hundred thousand kids and their teachers.

Bad Kindergarten cop! Bad! Bad! No rubber donut for you!

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