In January, California Senate President pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg introduced the Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2014 (SB 837), legislation that would improve and expand high-quality transitional kindergarten (TK) for all 4-year-olds, regardless of income. As the executive director of Kidango, one of the largest early childhood education providers in California, I have seen first-hand the positive impact of early learning on a child’s future, and that is why I support SB 837.
Providing TK for all 4-year-olds will ensure that higher quality and effective preschool service will level the educational inequities California’s diverse children face. Through this bill, children will have access to a developmentally appropriate program based on current brain research. And to ensure accountability and appropriate standards, TK would be centered on the California Preschool Learning Foundations. The Preschool Learning Foundations outline key knowledge and skills that most preschool-aged children can achieve when provided with the kinds of interactions, instruction and environments that research has shown promote early learning and development – particularly through high-quality preschool programs.
Let me highlight one key provision in the bill: SB 837 encourages a mixed delivery system of school districts and private providers in order to give parents a choice among high-quality programs and ensure that the expertise, knowledge and passion from preschool providers are maximized to serve all 4-year-olds. Expanding access will require more preschools, not fewer, and creating strong, public-private partnerships with providers like Kidango and others throughout California is the only way this vision for the future will be successful.
Additionally, this bill would address some challenges we are dealing with in the early education system while significantly expanding access. The current early learning system in California is not sustainable for assuring a quality program. California’s part-day state preschool is collapsing because it receives less than half of what kindergarten receives in funding, and the costs are rising rapidly. Preschool teachers are paid less than half of what kindergarten teachers make, which is why teacher turnover is so high. This model is a race to the bottom, and will surely lead to the closure of more preschools. Under the bill, the preschool reimbursement rate will rise to two-thirds of the reimbursement level per pupil for kindergartners, now at $7,555. Finally, preschool teachers could receive a professional wage like their K-12 colleagues.
The research is there: Early experiences profoundly shape children’s potential to succeed in school and life. In those critical early years, young learners not only start honing their academic skills, they develop critically important learning skills such as paying attention, managing emotions and completing tasks. More than 100 studies in the U.S. alone show that quality preschool significantly benefits children’s school success. We also know that every dollar invested in high-quality early learning programs can save $7 in the form of fewer students being held back or getting involved in crime, and more graduating from high school and college and earning higher salaries.
But we’re falling short. The fact is, the achievement gap starts early, and many children, especially low-income students and English language learners, are often two years behind their upper-income peers by the time they enter kindergarten. For those children, the “start-behind, stay-behind” challenge is all too real. Many states such as New Jersey, Oklahoma, Michigan, Georgia and Illinois have invested in early education; but California has some catching up to do. Our students are not getting a strong start when it matters most. Currently, 52 percent of our 3rd graders test below proficient in English Language Arts and more than 30 percent are not proficient in mathematics. Research shows that those who aren’t reading proficiently in 3rd grade are four times more likely to not graduate from high school. We are now facing a fiscal and political opportunity to make good on our commitment to the education of California’s young children.
The fiscal landscape is improving after years of devastating cuts to child care and development programs. For the first time since 2008, the Legislative Analyst’s Office is projecting a surplus, with anticipated further improvement in the state’s economy. Politically, we haven’t seen the will to support early education in recent years – but that’s changing too. With the support of Assembly and Senate leaders, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, voters and children’s advocates, there is growing momentum for expanding and improving TK for 4-year-olds. With the Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2014, we have a path forward.
Despite my enthusiastic support for this bill, I recognize that even the best-intentioned legislation can have unintended consequences. That’s why there is time for input and revisions as the law moves through the Legislature, in which early learning experts will provide support and work with the author to make any necessary improvements to ensure the best for California children.
At its core, this bill is good for children. It takes the best from the current system and improves standards to ensure our children are getting the strong start they need and deserve. Now is the time to focus on ensuring all children are ready for kindergarten. Now is the time to support the Kindergarten Readiness Act. Our children cannot wait.
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Paul Miller is executive director of Kidango, a leader in early care and education. Kidango offers a wide variety of programs to meet the diverse needs of children 0-12 years of age and their families in the San Francisco Bay Area.