How California’s new universal transitional kindergarten program will be rolled out

July 12, 2021

Greta Heinke and Kenneth Cisneros, both in transitional kindergarten, play a memory match game together during free choice time at Bishop School in Sunnyvale Elementary District.

In the wake of the pandemic, which shined a spotlight on the essential nature of early childhood education and care, universal transitional kindergarten is poised to become a reality in California.

Championed by Gov. Gavin Newsom and several lawmakers, the $2.7 billion universal transitional kindergarten program will be gradually phased in over the next five years, until it includes all the state’s 4-year-olds by the 2025-26 school year.

Currently, transitional kindergarten, or TK, serves about 100,000 children, primarily those who turn 5 between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2. How the expanded TK program will be rolled out is detailed in SB 130, the TK-12 education trailer bill Newsom signed Friday, clarifying policies related to the state budget for 2021-22.

Although some of the state’s largest districts already offer expanded transitional kindergarten, experts say making a year of pre-kindergarten available to all is a watershed achievement in early education.

“After lagging behind other states, California suddenly leads the nation in expanding quality preschool,” said Bruce Fuller, professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley.

In keeping with the Master Plan for Early Learning and Care and President Joe Biden’s vision of universal preschool, this expansion of the program will create more equity in early education, experts say. They cheer increasing access to early education, which they say is pivotal to closing achievement gaps because about 90% of brain growth happens before kindergarten. 

“With this budget, Gov. Newsom and legislators have transformed the lives of young children, their families and their teachers,” said Scott Moore, head of Kidango, a nonprofit organization that runs many Bay Area child care centers. “Simply put, California will become the best state in the nation to raise a child. Every child will get one year of pre-K, most low-income children will get at least two years of pre, plus a historic increase in infant-toddler child care.”

Currently, California, which has almost 3 million children under the age of 5, trails behind other states in terms of access to early education, with only 37% enrolled in transitional kindergarten and the state’s subsidized preschool program.

“It took 20 plus years and countless others pushing hard, and I’m beyond thrilled that California will now offer universal pre-K for all 4-year-olds via our transitional kindergarten program,” said Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, a longtime champion of TK. “This action will change the trajectories for our youth for generations to come.”

That’s pivotal to early education advocates because research shows that children who attend preschool are more likely to take honors classes and less likely to repeat a grade. 

“California has among the largest achievement gaps in the country, and research has shown those gaps are present before children enter kindergarten, so it is imperative that we provide high-quality early learning opportunities for kids,” said Samantha Tran, s​enior managing director of education policy at Children Now, an advocacy group. “Those options have to be high quality if we are going to have the intended impact and not create greater disparities. So issues like effective planning, teacher training and recruitment, and developmentally appropriate ratios and curriculum have to be at the center of the rollout.”

Right now transitional kindergarten targets largely those children who narrowly miss the cutoff for traditional kindergarten. This bill outlines a plan to add children in two- or three-month increments over the next few years until all 4-year-olds are eligible for the program. 

Advocates stress that for transitional kindergarten to best nurture young minds, it must have small teacher-to-student ratios and a developmentally appropriate curriculum as well as before- and after-school services available beyond the program’s three instructional hours. The bill provides many of these quality assurances, such as starting with a ratio of 1 adult for every 12 children in the 2022-23 school year and segueing to one adult for every 10 children by the 2023-24 school year.

“That is fantastic. If we were able to accomplish those ratios, it would be wonderful,” said Gennie Gorback, president of the California Kindergarten Association and a former TK teacher. “Lower teacher-to-student ratios that allow for personalized attention are incredibly important. So much of a TK teacher’s job requires the teacher to individualize the education for each student. You get to know each child’s personality and developmental needs in a much deeper way.” 

Making sure the program offers children a high-quality educational experience is crucial, advocates say. After all, TK did not get good grades in the “State of Preschool Yearbook,” an annual report on state-subsidized early learning, published by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) based at Rutgers University. While California’s State Preschool Program met six of the study’s 10 benchmarks of quality, the transitional kindergarten program met only three of them. Class size and specialized teacher training were the key concerns. Raising the consistency and quality of the programs, experts say, must go hand in hand with increasing access, if children’s needs are to be met. 

“Quality is the critical dimension that together with duration determines effectiveness,” said W. Steven Barnett, senior co-​director of NIEER. “Rigorous evidence of strong effects has been obtained only in studies with very high quality.”

Low-quality programs can actually have negative effects on children, some experts say.

“Studies of universal programs sometimes find harm, negative effects that persist for many years, when quality is low,” Barnett said. “The most obvious way in which a universal program can have negative effects is when parents of children who would have received high-quality experiences at home or in nonparental care switch their children to a free universal program that is of lower quality because it is poorly funded or rapidly expanded without high standards beyond the existing capacity to maintain quality, so that quality falls.”

Another critical aspect of the transitional kindergarten plan is that it allows parents to choose whether to participate in TK or some other preschool or child care option if they prefer. That’s a big relief for many subsidized child care providers who feared TK would undermine their business model by taking away all the 4-year-olds amid the aftermath of the pandemic, which greatly strained the child care sector.

However, many are anticipating ongoing challenges ahead. One area of concern is teacher recruitment and training amid teacher shortages. Teacher training is key, experts say, because when it comes to small children, preserving the joyful nature of learning is imperative.  

“Standards and accountability have value, but we must make sure they do not get in the way of child-centered, developmentally appropriate, playful learning,” said Deborah Stipek, a professor in the Stanford Graduate School of Education and an early education expert. “All learning, including content learning, should be playful.” 

Learning through play is the sweet spot for early education, experts say. Teachers must have the skills to be able to put natural childhood curiosity to good use. 

“Playtime is the most important part of a TK student’s day,” Gorback said. “They should have ample opportunities for open-ended play both in the classroom and outdoors. Great TK teachers plan intentional play opportunities that address their students’ specific needs. There is no such thing as ‘just play’ in the TK classroom. Play is where the learning happens.”

TK teachers are currently required to have 24 units of early childhood education, but some say they need more specialized training to be truly effective in the classroom. There is $300 million in the bill tagged for transitional kindergarten planning and implementation, including teacher recruitment and training.

“I have concerns about teacher preparation because right now TK teachers need a multiple credential, which doesn’t typically prepare teachers to work with young children,” Stipek said. “Some of us are pushing for a new P-3 credential, which would focus on young children, but we’re a long way off from that.” 

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