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.
“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.”