Early Learning

Transitional kindergarten expansion, early education not included in governor's budget proposal


A handwritten sign welcomes students to their transitional kindergarten classroom in Long Beach. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource

A handwritten sign welcomes students to their transitional kindergarten classroom in Long Beach. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource

While Democratic leaders in both houses of the state Legislature have cited expanding transitional kindergarten as a top priority in the coming year, Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed 2014-2015 budget did not mention the program – or include additional funding for early education of any kind.

“The budget speaks for itself,” Brown said in response to questions about the transitional kindergarten expansion at a news conference Thursday. “Wisdom and prudence (are) the order of the day. When you see this kind of (debt) liability (in the general fund) you have to hesitate before doing anything too major.”

Assembly Democrats called for expanding transitional kindergarten to all California 4-year-olds in their budget blueprint for 2014-15; Senate Democrats, led by Senate President pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, introduced a bill earlier this week echoing that proposal.

Offering transitional kindergarten to all 4-year-olds would effectively create a universal preschool program in the state; the pre-kindergarten grade is now only available to children who turn 5 during the first three months of the school year – only about one-quarter of California 4-year-olds. Lawmakers in both houses called expanding transitional kindergarten a “top priority” for the coming term.

The transitional kindergarten expansion would cost $198 million in 2015-2016 and would top out at $990 million in 2019-2020, when the program is fully implemented, according to the transitional kindergarten bill, Senate Bill 837. While money for the program needn’t be allocated in this year’s budget, bill proponents were hoping for a long-term commitment from the governor to fund a transitional kindergarten expansion.

Steinberg praised the governor’s fiscal prudence, but said it is time to consider new expenditures that would contribute to the state’s welfare.

“Expanding transitional kindergarten can be accomplished with just a fraction of increased Proposition 98 funds while saving billions of dollars in the long run by reducing the extra costs of special education, grade retention and juvenile crime,” Steinberg said in a statement. Brown’s budget proposal calls for an additional $10 billion for schools in 2014-15 under Prop. 98, the voter-approved school funding guarantee.

Calling Thursday’s budget release the “first act in a four act drama” before a state spending plan is approved, Steinberg told reporters that he and his colleagues hope that passing the Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2014 would become the Senate’s “signature accomplishment” in 2014.

Advocates have criticized Brown for a lack of support of early education during his tenure, even as he has ushered in reforms  restoring funding for K-12 programs. Advocates of the transitional kindergarten expansion said they will continue to lobby for the program. Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, D-Torrance, chair of the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Education Finance, said he plans to hold legislative hearings on the merits of investing in early education programs, including transitional kindergarten, this spring.

“I will remain optimistic that we can educate the governor on the merits of early childhood education programs,” Muratsuchi said.

Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, was blunter in her assessment of the governor’s silence on early education. Chair of the Black Causcus and a supporter of Steinberg’s bill, Mitchell called for the cuts to early education programs – nearly $1 billion between 2008 and 2012 – to be restored. The governor has reinstated $55 million of those cuts.

“The governor missed a key opportunity to reinvest in our early care and education system,” Mitchell told EdSource.

However, even a supporter of the Senate bill praised Brown’s reticence to wholly embrace universal transitional kindergarten.

Chris Steinhauser, superintendent of the Long Beach Unified School District and an early education advocate, said Brown was smart not to commit to new spending that could put money from the state’s Local Control Funding Formula for schools at risk. The funding formula provides additional money to districts with high concentrations of low-income students; Long Beach Unified School District is set to receive an additional $60 million in the new budget, Steinhauser said.

“I’m a fiscal conservative,” Steinhauser said. “I would not want to do this (if it would) reduce the Local Control Funding Formula allocation” to Long Beach.

Transitional kindergarten can help students succeed in school, which is important to Brown, Steinhauser said. He’s optimistic that Brown will carefully consider the Senate and Assembly proposals.

“I don’t think (Brown) will shut the door on it,” Steinhauser said. “He’ll want to study it and look at it. He does believe in investment in kids and in closing the (achievement) gap.”

Lillian Mongeau covers early childhood education. Contact her or follow her @lrmongeau. Subscribe to EdSource’s Early Learning RSS feed.

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