Senate Democrats introduce bill to expand transitional kindergarten

January 7, 2014
Transitional kindergarten students Sean Whitfield and Madison Her, both 5, eat lunch at H.W. Harkness Elementary School in Sacramento. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource

Transitional kindergarten students Sean Whitfield and Madison Her, both 5, eat lunch at H.W. Harkness Elementary School in Sacramento, where Senate Democrats unveiled a new bill that would expand the program to all 4-year-olds. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource

Highlighting early education as a top priority, Senate Democrats have introduced a bill that would create a new grade level – a pre-kindergarten program for 4-year-olds – in California’s public schools.

“This is at the top of the list. I can’t think of anything more important,” Senate President pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg said at a news conference announcing the new bill Tuesday.

Steinberg joined with 10 of his Senate colleagues in proposing that the state’s transitional kindergarten program, which currently serves only a small number of California’s nearly 500,000 4-year-olds, be expanded to accommodate all 4-year-olds in the state wishing to enroll. Under the proposal, the expansion would begin to roll out in the 2015-16 school year and would accommodate all eligible students by the 2019-20 year.

Steinberg said the anticipated cost of the expanded program, $990 million per year once it’s fully implemented, was “modest” and easy to defend as a worthy investment of public money. Advocates of the program point to research suggesting that children who attend preschool are more likely to graduate high school and less likely to commit crimes, thereby increasing their earning potential and reducing their cost to society.

Transitional kindergarten was offered for the first time during the 2012-13 school year as an extra grade level for children who turn 5 during the first three months of the school year and are too young for traditional kindergarten. When the program is fully implemented next fall, only about a quarter of the state’s children will be eligible to participate, based on the current age restrictions.

The Senate proposal would create a half-day transitional kindergarten program for all 4-year-olds.

Money to pay for the new program would come from revenues set aside under the voter-approved Proposition 98, which sets a minimum funding guarantee for the state’s schools. Steinberg said schools are projected to have an additional $7.1 million for Prop. 98 in the budget year that starts July 1. However, other educational programs will be vying for those dollars as well, including community colleges and K-12 districts.

The proposal, introduced as Senate Bill 837, the Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2014, follows a similar proposal from the Assembly Democratic Caucus, which identified universal transitional kindergarten among its priorities in its “budget blueprint” for the coming year. The proposals potentially carry significant weight in the Democrat-controlled Legislature, where Republican support is not needed to pass a budget.

Gov. Jerry Brown had no comment on the new bill, a spokesperson for his office said Tuesday. Brown is expected to release his 2014-15 budget proposal on Friday.

Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, announces a bill to create a universal pre-kindergarten program for 4-year-olds at H.W. Harkness Elementary School in Sacramento. Joining him at the press conference are, from left, Sen. Carol Liu, D-La Cañada Flintridge, Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Long Beach, and state Superintendent Tom Torlakson. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource

Steinberg said he’s had “good conversations” with the governor regarding the new legislation. But Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, chair of the Black Caucus and a supporter of the bill, was less optimistic about the governor’s likely support. Early education, she said, “is not an area (Brown) has been sensitive to.”

Republican Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, wasn’t ready to support the proposal, noting that he hadn’t yet seen any evidence that transitional kindergarten improved academic outcomes for children. Huff was also wary of any new spending measures, despite California’s sunnier fiscal outlook.

“Legislators will introduce many new spending proposals this year on a variety of policies that may sound wonderful,” Huff said. “The most responsible action is to look at all of them and then prioritize based on available resources rather than committing to new spending right now.”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, a sponsor of the bill, said the new proposal would not take money away from existing funding for early childhood care and education. On the contrary, he said, expanding transitional kindergarten would allow existing state programs to concentrate on serving children younger than 4.

The proposed program would last three hours. Torlakson suggested that the state-funded preschool program, targeting low-income 3- and 4-year-olds, could work with public schools to provide care and education to students for the other half of the day. Students would spend that time in a classroom of no more than 20 students under the care of one credentialed teacher and one associate teacher with training in early education, according to the language of the bill. The expansion would create 8,000 new jobs for credentialed teachers and 12,000 new jobs for associate teachers, according to a spokesperson for Liu.

Finding teachers likely won’t be a problem in Riverside, said Judi Paredes, the assistant superintendent for elementary instruction at Riverside Unified School District. Finding space to house a new grade’s worth of students could be tougher, she said.

Anticipating potential impacts on classroom availability, the bill specifies that facilities bonds could be used to build transitional kindergarten classrooms. Private preschool (or early education) providers that meet quality standards could also be used to supply transitional kindergarten services, according to the bill, another possible release valve for overcrowded schools.

Despite the challenges, Paredes said an extra year of school would be a good thing for children in her district.

“If the curriculum is developmentally appropriate for 4-year-olds, I would predict that by 1st grade we’d see higher levels of achievement,” Paredes said.

Operating a program that served all 4-year-olds would actually be an easier task than running a program for a small portion of the population, as the current transitional kindergarten legislation mandates, Paredes said.

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

Were the Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2014 to become law, it would bring California to the forefront of the universal preschool movement, joining states like New Jersey, Oklahoma and Georgia, which offer universal preschool for 4-year-olds. It would also qualify the state for funding under federal legislation proposed in the House and Senate that would provide grants to states interested in expanding their public preschool offerings.

Public preschool in California is currently a patchwork affair. Head Start, a federal program, and a state-funded preschool program serve about 50 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds. The rest either stay home or attend private programs that can run parents around $15,000 a year, though prices vary widely across the state. Some districts, like San Francisco Unified, Los Angeles Unified, Long Beach Unified and Fresno Unified, have started their own public preschool programs with funding streams from various sources.

Mike Hanson, Fresno’s superintendent, was enthusiastic about the notion of enrolling all of his city’s 4-year-olds in transitional kindergarten.

“It makes tremendous sense for us in Fresno,” Hanson said. “This is the poorest city in California. Getting to universal (enrollment) and having the resources to back it would be a huge advantage for us.”

Hanson was less impressed with what sounded to him like the overly prescriptive nature of the proposed bill. The legislature needs to offer districts maximum flexibility in implementing to programs, Hanson said.

“Fund us to get 4-year-olds into school, but don’t tell us how to staff a classroom,” he said. “That’s the local education board’s purview.”

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