After a couple of failed attempts, a move to expand transitional kindergarten to all 4-year-olds in California is under way.
Assembly members Kevin McCarty, Phil Ting and Eloise Gomez Reyes and state Sens. Susan Rubio, Lena Gonzalez, and Bill Dodd have introduced Assembly Bill 2500 to approve universal transitional kindergarten.
California approved transitional kindergarten 10 years ago. There have been at least two attempts since then to expand the program.
Currently only children with birthdays between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2 are eligible for transitional kindergarten, which effectively gives them two free years of public kindergarten.
“It’s a fairness issue,” said McCarty, D-Sacramento, pointing out that three out of four children do not get that benefit. He said the research shows that children who have been able to attend transitional kindergarten have had a tremendous advantage and been very successful.
He added that school districts favor the move because the extra students would give them extra money.
California approved transitional kindergarten 10 years ago. There have been at least two attempts since then to expand the program to all kids – in 2014 and in 2018, in a bill authored by Dodd.
Some school districts, like Mill Valley School District, have discontinued transitional kindergarten because they don’t think it’s fair to offer the program to only 25 percent of students.
Currently, California only offers one credential to teach transitional kindergarten through grade 8.
But others say the state instead should provide universal preschool to all 4-year-olds. They raise concerns about whether its developmentally appropriate to move that age group up to elementary school and whether the teachers will be properly trained.
Andrea Golloher, an assistant professor at San Jose State University and an associate director of the Early Childhood Institute at the university, thinks expanding early childhood education is a great idea but just hopes that the schools make sure the programs aren’t too academic and still leave lots of time for play. She hopes that if the law is passed, all transitional kindergarten teachers are given education in what is developmentally appropriate for 4-year-olds.
The needs of children that young are different than the needs of 5-year-olds, she said. “There’s a lot of desire to do the right thing and a misunderstanding of the research,” she said.
Currently, California only offers one credential to teach transitional kindergarten through grade 8. “That’s a really large span for human development,” Golloher said. “It’s challenging to make sure that we are really prepared and thinking about what’s appropriate.”
Having said that, she said her daughter is currently in transitional kindergarten and having a great experience.
Expanding transitional kindergarten is not good for taxpayers because teachers in elementary school are paid much higher than preschool teachers.
Lisa Wilkin, executive director of the Child Development Consortium of Los Angeles, pointed that the teacher-to-student ratio is smaller in preschool than in elementary school. For preschool, the state requires one teacher for every eight students, while for elementary school there can be one teacher for 24-30 students. Moving up to elementary school could mean that a 4-year-old will get less attention from the teacher.
While it’s clear from research that students who attend school before kindergarten get an advantage, the benefits appear to be the same whether that is in preschool or transitional kindergarten, she said.
Wilkin, who runs 11 child care centers serving children from age 2 until they attend kindergarten, said an expansion of transitional kindergarten will hurt her programs financially by pulling all the 4-year-olds away.
“This is such a great moment for us for early childhood in California.” — Patricia Lozano
Ken Herron, who runs four state-funded preschool programs in Fresno County, shares the same concern. It is more expensive and more difficult to take care of the youngest children, who need more supervision, he said. The proposal that 4-year-olds move to transitional kindergarten from preschool amounts to taking away the “the best children from the best place they should be,” he said.
Expanding transitional kindergarten is not good for taxpayers because teachers in elementary school are paid much higher than preschool teachers, who make near minimum wage, he added. “This is just good for the school districts,” he said. “It’s not good for the child or the providers.”
However, several child advocacy groups, including Early Edge California disagree.
Patricia Lozano, executive director of the group, said the teachers will receive training in how to developmentally teach 4-year-olds. She said the children will have a huge benefit by having access to credentialed teachers.
She said this is an unusual moment in recent times when political leaders are open to expanding early education. Presidential candidates are talking about it, Gov. Gavin Newsom has made it a priority and many state legislators are supportive.
“This is such a great moment for us for early childhood in California,” she said. “We’re going to go for it. We have to take this opportunity to support the new governor and work closely with the legislature because we have these amazing champions.”
Though it’s always hard to change, Lozano believes the effort is worth it.
“If we don’t do it now, this might not come again.”