The state’s largest school district is considering expanding its transitional kindergarten to more 4-year-olds – a move that could affect other districts statewide.
Los Angeles Unified School District lobbyists are seeking legislation that would change the birthdate required to enter transitional kindergarten – which provides an extra year of schooling for some students – and open the program up to more children at an earlier age. With the law change, the district is trying to find a way to save preschool slots that may be eliminated in one of its current programs, the School Readiness Language Development Program.
Transitional kindergarten is designed for children who turn 5 between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2, those students who previously were eligible to enroll in kindergarten. In 2010, lawmakers changed the required 5th birthdate to begin kindergarten from Dec. 2 to Sept. 1.
Now, the Los Angeles Unified School District wants to offer transitional kindergarten to any 4-year-old, as long as they turn 5 sometime during the school year.
In doing so, the district is attempting on a smaller scale to do what early education advocates and legislators have been pushing for statewide – providing schooling to every California 4-year-old. If the 646,000-student Los Angeles Unified succeeds in changing the law, it could open up the doors for other districts to expand transitional kindergarten.
“I would love for LAUSD to offer full-day preschool for 4-year-olds. It would be phenomenal,” said Monica Ratliff, a district board member who is proposing the model, during a committee meeting last month.
Lawmakers passed the Kindergarten Readiness Act in 2010 because they wanted children to start kindergarten when they are older, like many other states were already doing. Along with the act, they created the transitional kindergarten program for those children with fall birthdays.
In 2013-14, about 57,000 students were estimated to have been in transitional kindergarten, according to the California Department of Education. Some districts have half-day programs, while Los Angeles Unified would have full-day classes under the plan.
Districts receive state funds for each day transitional kindergarten children attend school – just like any other student – based on the average daily attendance in those classes. In addition, the state has agreed to pay for students who turn 5 after Dec. 2 – with funding only starting on their 5th birthdays – in the districts that choose to offer transitional kindergarten classes for these younger students.
Under Los Angeles Unified’s plan, the district would pick up the bill for students while they are 4 and not eligible for the current transitional kindergarten program, said Leilani Aguinaldo Yee, deputy director of the district’s government relations office. The state then would pay for the children’s schooling after they turn 5.
The Los Angeles Unified board passed a resolution to seek the law change at its May 12 meeting. The change would allow 4-year-olds to enroll in transitional kindergarten at the start of the school year, even if they turn 5 after the Dec. 2 cutoff date. A district early education committee was scheduled to hear an update this week.
The plan is meant to address a problem for Los Angeles Unified: The district is proposing to eliminate a preschool program designed to help children and their parents in low-income, racially and ethnically isolated neighborhoods of the city. On June 23, the board is expected to make a decision about the fate of the School Readiness Language Development Program, which serves 13,968 children at 290 locations. (See a full story about the proposal to eliminate the program.)
The program now enrolls 3- and 4-year-olds for about 2 ½ hours a day. The district pays for the preschool program out of its general fund, about $16 million a year. But the district has indicated that without funds from the state it does not want to continue the program. If the Legislature approves the board’s request, at least the 4-year-olds now participating in the language development program would have the opportunity to enroll in transitional kindergarten.
Parents and teachers in the program have submitted thousands of signatures and repeatedly protested the proposed elimination, saying this is the only opportunity for many children to get preschool.
Parent Erick Villalta said his 4-year-old son, Miguelangel, would have stayed home with his grandmother if it weren’t for the program. He’s said he’s sad that it may be cut and he’s hoping the preschool will be available for his 3-year-old daughter.
“I know how the kids develop. It helps them a lot,” said Villalta after an end-of-the-year graduation ceremony in South Gate.
If the program is cut, there would be classroom space for 11,000 4-year-olds in an expanded transitional kindergarten, according to a Los Angeles Unified School District memo.
But the district has yet to figure out if, or how, a transitional kindergarten expansion would work – how much it would cost, how many children it would serve or where it would be located. It might be a pilot program or solely for low-income children. Board members stressed that they were merely exploring the possibility by passing the resolution.
“I am hopeful that full day TK for 4-year-olds would allow us to better serve this population,” no matter what size the program will be, Ratliff said in an email after the May meeting.
State lawmakers will consider the transitional kindergarten law change as part of a “trailer bill” that will be introduced in the Legislature. A trailer bill is new legislation that would be tied to the budget, although no specific dollar amount is attached, Yee said. The district may have a more detailed plan next week.
While early education advocates support the concept of a transitional kindergarten expansion, they caution that the program must be designed for younger age children.
Kim Pattillo Brownson, director of educational equity for the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization, said she didn’t want an expanded transitional kindergarten to be an excuse to eliminate the preschool program, leaving potentially thousands of children without preschool.
“It’s an intriguing possibility because it’s a way of serving more 4-year-olds,” said Pattillo Brownson, an external representative on the district’s Early Childhood Education and Parent Engagement Ad Hoc Committee.
Ratliff said she supported the transitional kindergarten idea because Los Angeles Unified would give 4-year-olds more hours of schooling under the plan. Experts have said that a full-day program is more educationally beneficial to younger children, especially English learners, than a half-day program.
State lawmakers already have considered a similar transitional kindergarten expansion on a much larger scale. But last year, legislators shot down a bill that promised pre-kindergarten to all 4-year-olds because of the large state expense – $990 million annually.
This year, the Legislature is considering a smaller scale bill, AB 47, that would guarantee a year of state preschool or transitional kindergarten for low-income 4-year-olds. On June 3, the full Assembly passed the bill.
CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to change the estimated number of California students in transitional kindergarten.