Credit: Lillian Mongeau/EdSource Today

Following the introduction of a bill to expand transitional kindergarten to all 4-year-olds in January 2014, transitional kindergarten teacher Michelle Cazel-Mayo’s classroom at H.W. Harkness Elementary School in Sacramento gets a visit from the media.

UPDATE: After “push-back” to this proposal, state Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg has taken the idea off the table. Read more details about the latest plan for transitional kindergarten and about the education budget deal he hammered out with other Democratic leaders.

Nearly half of California’s currently eligible 4-year-olds would lose their eligibility to enroll in transitional kindergarten in 2015 if a bill that passed the Senate last week gets the governor’s approval.

State Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, introduced a much-revised Senate Bill 837 on the floor of the Senate last week. The bill would expand transitional kindergarten, a program for children who turn 5 in the first few months of the school year, but not as much as he’d proposed earlier this year.

Steinberg originally proposed expanding the program to all 4-year-olds, adding a full year of schooling for all children before they enter kindergarten. The latest version of the bill would expand transitional kindergarten only to low-income 4-year-olds. That means children currently slated to start transitional kindergarten in 2015 whose families fall above the low-income threshold would no longer be eligible to attend the program.

“We have an opportunity this year with a relatively limited amount of public dollars to provide” preschool for 4-year-olds from low-income families, Steinberg told the Senate before the bill passed 26-10. “This pared-down version (of the) bill would still cover half of 4-year-olds in California because half are low-income.”

Steinberg’s office declined a request for an interview until the joint meetings between the Assembly and Senate education budget committees have resulted in a joint early childhood budget proposal.

The current proposed expansion would double the size of the current transitional program and some advocates argue it’s the best way to spend limited funds.

“We have no evidence that (preschool) gives a boost to middle class white kids,” said Bruce Fuller, an education professor at UC Berkeley who studies early childhood education. “A universal program, yes, could help poor kids. But essentially we’d (also) be wasting money on (middle class) kids who don’t benefit that much.”

Still, many families who don’t qualify as low-income have been expecting that their children would be participating in transitional kindergarten under the proposed law.

“I was…supportive of the universal preschool proposal and would be…willing to pay more in taxes to fund universal preschool,” Amalia Cunningham, a middle-class mom from El Cerrito, north of Oakland, said by email.

Cunningham’s 3-year-old daughter would have been eligible to attend transitional kindergarten in the fall of 2015 under the current guidelines allowing children born in the first three months of the school year to enroll. That, Cunningham said, was a prospect she looked forward to. Under the revised proposal, however, her daughter would no longer be eligible.

“We do not income-qualify under the current proposal, and so my daughter would stay at her current private preschool for an extra year, which may or may not be good preparation for kindergarten for someone who will turn 5 in November,” Cunningham wrote.

Transitional kindergarten was created in 2010 as part of a bill written by Joe Simitian, then the Democratic state senator from Palo Alto, to change the age requirement for starting kindergarten.

Simitian said two teachers in his district asked him to author a bill that would require students to turn 5 by Sept. 1 of the year they enroll in kindergarten. California was one of only four states that had maintained a Dec. 2 deadline for turning 5, meaning that a quarter of beginning kindergartners were 4 years old for the first few months of school. The teachers pointed to research showing that 5-year-olds were more developmentally ready to handle the academic demands of kindergarten.

Simitian, who served on the school board in his home district of Palo Alto, on the Assembly Education Budget Subcommittee as an assemblyman and on the Senate Education Committee as a senator, said he was easily convinced and wrote the bill, SB 1381.

At first, the bill only changed the age requirement for starting kindergarten; it did not create transitional kindergarten. If implemented as originally written, it would have meant fewer children would have started kindergarten. The problem with a smaller class of kindergartners, Simitian said, was a very Sacramento one: it would have saved the state $700 million.

“The reason that was a problem,” Simitian said, “is that everyone had an opinion about who ought to be the beneficiary of that savings.”

Simitian’s initial proposal was that half the money would go to the California State Preschool program, which serves some 3- and 4-year-old students from low-income families, and the other half would go to reduce the state budget deficit.

Some thought all of the saved money should go to reduce the deficit. Others thought it should all go to the California State Preschool program. But the argument that won, and that Simitian said he still thinks was the strongest, was that the money should go back to the children it was intended for, albeit in a slightly different form. Thus was born transitional kindergarten, an extra year of public school for children born between Sept. 1 and Dec. 2, regardless of income.

Under current law, only students with birthdays in the first three months of the school year are eligible for transitional kindergarten. SB 837 would change that.

Under current law, only students with birthdays in the first three months of the school year are eligible for transitional kindergarten. SB 837 would change that.

“There were folks out there who hoped that transitional kindergarten, having proved its benefit, would then be ‘growable’ over time,” Simitian said. “For me, it wasn’t a consideration or a factor.”

By January 2014, with about 78,000 children enrolled in transitional kindergarten, growing the program had become Steinberg’s primary consideration.

Steinberg had co-authored the 2010 transitional kindergarten bill with Simitian. He decided the national momentum behind expanding early education programs spurred by President Barack Obama’s championing of the issue made 2014 the right year to shoot for a massive expansion in California.

Steinberg introduced SB 837 in early January, calling it his top priority for his final year in office before he terms out at the end of 2014. Though spending more on early childhood education has not been a priority of Gov. Jerry Brown, Steinberg has expressed confidence that the governor can be convinced.

For one thing, public opinion in the state has been notably pro-preschool. A Field Poll of 1,000 registered voters conducted in partnership with EdSource in April found that 79 percent of respondents thought it was somewhat or very important to expand the availability of preschool to 4-year-olds. The same poll found that 51 percent of registered voters thought preschool should be made available, without charge, to all 4-year-olds. Thirty-eight percent of voters thought free preschool should only be made available to children in low-income families.

A more recent poll of 1,000 Bay Area residents conducted by EMC Research in partnership with the Bay Area Council found that 69 percent of respondents either somewhat or strongly supported increasing state and local funding for early childhood development and preschool programs.

Whether or not the strong public support for preschool sways Brown, it could be the lever that brings universal public preschool to all California 4-year-olds, said UC Berkeley’s Fuller.

“Over time, ideally these programs will (expand to) meet middle class households,” Fuller said.

The new version of Steinberg’s transitional kindergarten bill contains language that would allow individual districts to offer transitional kindergarten to a broader population, but the Senate budget proposal does not provide funding. Instead, it suggests that districts offer transitional kindergarten on a sliding scale to residents who earn an annual income above $44,000 for a family of four – the cutoff for low-income eligibility.

Many Republican senators remain opposed to the measure on the grounds that it costs too much.

The Senate early childhood budget proposal would redirect the $900 million currently slated for transitional kindergarten to a program that would serve all low-income 4-year-olds. The full proposal – including more money for the existing state preschool program, a higher value for child care vouchers and an increased reimbursement rate for centers caring for low-income students – would cost an additional $378 million in 2014-15. That number is likely to change once lawmakers hammer out a budget deal that integrates early education proposals from both houses.

Whatever the final amount ends up being, Steinberg may be betting it’s an easier number for the governor to swallow than the additional $1.46 billion it would cost in 2019-20 just to provide transitional kindergarten for all 4-year-olds.

“I think it’s still a huge advance,” said Deborah Kong, executive director of Early Edge California and a vocal proponent of the transitional-kindergarten-for-all proposal.

“He started with a great aspiration,” Kong said of Steinberg. “Then he realized it had fiscal implications.”

Lillian Mongeau covers early childhood education. Contact her or follow her @lrmongeau. Subscribe to EdSource’s early learning newsletter, Eyes on the Early Years.


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  1. Camala 12 months ago12 months ago

    Ca policy makers need to learn how to think. Change in birthdays would have only saved money during the three years of ushingbirghdays back, but now they're stuck with a program that is costing them money every year. Not only that, but it is an unfair and unequatable program by being offered to only 1/4 of students. Additionally, those students will then be the OLDEST students when they do enter kinder, further widening the. … Read More

    Ca policy makers need to learn how to think. Change in birthdays would have only saved money during the three years of ushingbirghdays back, but now they’re stuck with a program that is costing them money every year. Not only that, but it is an unfair and unequatable program by being offered to only 1/4 of students. Additionally, those students will then be the OLDEST students when they do enter kinder, further widening the. Discrepancy between them and the youngest students. Come on, California, learn to think.

  2. Alan Guttman 2 years ago2 years ago

    The creation of a "transitional kindergarten" and the shifting of the kindergarten entry eligibility date are both solutions to the true problem: the foisting of developmentally inappropriate curricula upon many of California's kindergarten children, including those children enrolled in kindergarten who turn five years old in the first few months after the beginning of school. Over the past 15 years, a curriculum more appropriate for 1st graders has been steadily and systematically pushed down into … Read More

    The creation of a “transitional kindergarten” and the shifting of the kindergarten entry eligibility date are both solutions to the true problem: the foisting of developmentally inappropriate curricula upon many of California’s kindergarten children, including those children enrolled in kindergarten who turn five years old in the first few months after the beginning of school. Over the past 15 years, a curriculum more appropriate for 1st graders has been steadily and systematically pushed down into kindergarten classrooms by district administrators, school boards, and educational publishers who often know very little about developmentally appropriate early childhood curricula, classroom environments, and instructional practice. All of California’s children who are eligible for public school kindergarten (instead of transitional kindergarten) would be better served by reevaluating kindergarten curricula and early childhood teacher qualifications throughout the state and by aligning kindergarten practice to what research tells us about how four- and five-year-olds learn best.

  3. Slammy 2 years ago2 years ago

    There another thing I don't get, so I'm asking in two places hoping to trigger comments. Why is permanent TK (only for Sept-Dec. kids) constitutional? How does providing 14 years of education to some people and 13 years to others based on an arbitrary birthday cut-off not go against CA constitution? Given preschool’s effectiveness for low income kids, why wouldn’t there be a challenge? (Or is there no one willing to foot the legal bill … Read More

    There another thing I don’t get, so I’m asking in two places hoping to trigger comments.

    Why is permanent TK (only for Sept-Dec. kids) constitutional? How does providing 14 years of education to some people and 13 years to others based on an arbitrary birthday cut-off not go against CA constitution? Given preschool’s effectiveness for low income kids, why wouldn’t there be a challenge? (Or is there no one willing to foot the legal bill for something that might actually expand educational opportunity?)

  4. Slammy 2 years ago2 years ago

    I still need to catch up to the latest pieces, but incase this thread is still live I wanted say two things. EL's comment is spot on and very wise. In my area (San Francisco), not qualifying as low-income does not put a family anywhere close to middle class by almost any definition of middle class. Also, there are not enough tuition based preschools. Even in SF, where we are lucky to have … Read More

    I still need to catch up to the latest pieces, but incase this thread is still live I wanted say two things.

    EL’s comment is spot on and very wise. In my area (San Francisco), not qualifying as low-income does not put a family anywhere close to middle class by almost any definition of middle class. Also, there are not enough tuition based preschools. Even in SF, where we are lucky to have a part day free preschool for all program, it’s hard to find good preschool options. I feel completely out of touch every time I read an article about “red shirting” because I know so many families that wish their kids could start K earlier in large part because they can’t find/afford a preschool option.

    Krono: All CA kids can attend 13 years of public education, K-12. TK provides a small cohort of kids 14 years of public education, TK-12. That was a reasonable temporary compromise as a transition to changing the rules of the game. Uncertainty about school options is a huge burden to families of all incomes who are trying to plan ahead. So, TK helped mitigate the switching costs, even though the whole day-by-day play-by-play last minute changes is stressful. So, short term was fine. On the whole, I don’t think permanent TK is a good policy.

    I know I stepped into NYMBY territory, but I don’t think keeping TK forever is fair. I’m a little biased because I have a late December kid (even though we were well into elementary before TK came around). I’m happy for everyone that has benefited from TK. If my kid had the right birthday I would have felt like we won the lottery. Oh wait, I guess that shows how dire the need is. Education is a right not a prize. Preschool should be for everyone.

  5. Krono 2 years ago2 years ago

    Extending pre-K to all low-income four year olds has got to be a good thing, so kudos to Sen Steinberg for pushing this. But aren’t some non-poor kids going to be made worse off? Used to be that all fall birthday kids went straight to K. Now they all go to TK. But the new plan would have them do nothing for an extra year, unless they are at poverty level?

    Replies

    • el 2 years ago2 years ago

      Yes, this is going to be pretty unfortunate for a lot of people above the income cutoff. My daughter has a mid-september birthday and I’m very glad she was allowed to start kindergarten at 4. Another year at home would not have been right for her.

  6. Steven Nelson 2 years ago2 years ago

    As a school board member, I'm also interested in ROI, Return On Investment. Large scale microeconomics research is fairly clear - investment in K-3 programs for Economically Disadvantaged is a statistically significant way to improve education attainment (measured by standardized tests). The research I'm most familiar with was on targeted class-size reduction, but there is also work on pre-K for Economically Disadvantaged families. As a mainly K-8 provider, I'm concerned with the … Read More

    As a school board member, I’m also interested in ROI, Return On Investment. Large scale microeconomics research is fairly clear – investment in K-3 programs for Economically Disadvantaged is a statistically significant way to improve education attainment (measured by standardized tests). The research I’m most familiar with was on targeted class-size reduction, but there is also work on pre-K for Economically Disadvantaged families. As a mainly K-8 provider, I’m concerned with the readiness of the 45% ED kids who enter my district’s Kindergardens. The new TK->PK emphasis in Steinberg’s bill matches that dire need! But then again, I’m an old ’70s Head Start and Peace Corp volunteer from UC Berkeley and I don’t care to invest in a middle-class welfare program (Sammy’s point).

    Replies

    • el 2 years ago2 years ago

      I think it's worth noting that isolating your preschool/TK/PK as a program for low income kids may not be what is best for those kids or the community. For one thing, this is a time when friendships and playgroups are made, and by excluding the higher income kids, you may be inadvertently creating class boundaries between student friendships and student interactions, as well as lessening the support for your pre-K programs. Building those bridges between your … Read More

      I think it’s worth noting that isolating your preschool/TK/PK as a program for low income kids may not be what is best for those kids or the community. For one thing, this is a time when friendships and playgroups are made, and by excluding the higher income kids, you may be inadvertently creating class boundaries between student friendships and student interactions, as well as lessening the support for your pre-K programs.

      Building those bridges between your ED families and the rest of the community may be valuable to overall achievement.

      Also, kids that have to go elsewhere for preschool may well stay elsewhere and never come back to your school.

      The situation may vary based on the size of your school, the percentage of kids who qualify, the number of slots in play, and your resources.

      At least giving schools the option to allow other students to attend is probably helpful.

  7. Slammy 2 years ago2 years ago

    I thought the transitional in TK refers to phasing the Sept cut-off, not the kids born in the shoulder season. I happy that SB 837 now uses the much more clear name PreK. I want PreK for all, but as far as trade-offs go I'm ok with phasing out TK faster to introduce PreK for all low-income families. Universal preschool is a worthwhile investment that will pay for itself in the … Read More

    I thought the transitional in TK refers to phasing the Sept cut-off, not the kids born in the shoulder season. I happy that SB 837 now uses the much more clear name PreK. I want PreK for all, but as far as trade-offs go I’m ok with phasing out TK faster to introduce PreK for all low-income families.

    Universal preschool is a worthwhile investment that will pay for itself in the long run. Low-income preschool would cost lest in total but get more bang for the buck. It’s really hard to get fired up about TK unless you have a kid born in the right month. Why should kids with birthdays in 3 months receive one year more education support than kids born in the other 9 months? Why should high-income (or at least not low) kids with birthdays in 3 months receive one year more education support than low-income kids born in the other 9 months?

    Replies

    • Claudia Stokes 2 years ago2 years ago

      Sammy, yes. I completely agree with you and think it is unfair. My son is born on December 12 and he is not eligible for TK? Who came up with these dates? It should be available to all children.

  8. Paul Muench 2 years ago2 years ago

    Would TK students count towards the student population for LCFF purposes? Given only low income students would be admitted would that have a material impact on the funding required? If so, is that already factored into the funding estimates?

    Replies

    • Lillian Mongeau 2 years ago2 years ago

      Great questions, Paul. We’re waiting on the joint resolution on this proposal. I hope to have answers for you once it comes out. (I’m told that could be as early as the end of this week.)
      ~Lillian

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