Should all school districts be required to offer transitional kindergarten?

September 1, 2021

Transitional kindergarten students discuss 19th century French artist Gustave Caillebotte's painting "Fruit Displayed on a Stand" at Figarden Elementary School in Fresno.

Even as universal transitional kindergarten — which will offer an extra year of school to all 4-year-olds —inches closer to becoming a reality in California, parents like Katherine Fitzpatrick worry that their children will miss out.

Since her son Owen turns 5 in September, he should qualify for the program, a stepping stone between preschool and kindergarten currently offered to children who just miss the kindergarten enrollment cutoff date.

However, because they live in a “basic aid” district, transitional kindergarten, or TK, is not being offered at his district. Basic aid districts are funded primarily by property taxes, which generate more per-pupil dollars than what the Local Control Funding Formula —used to calculate education funding for most California districts — would provide.

Since they don’t get money through the funding formula, a handful of districts in San Diego, San Mateo and Marin counties have opted out of offering TK. 

The California Department of Education says the law requires all school districts to offer transitional kindergarten to age-eligible students, regardless of how those districts are funded, but it does not have the authority to impose penalties on school districts that fail to offer it.

Some district officials, however, interpret the law differently. They counter that since they do not receive dedicated funding for TK students, they are not required to offer it. LCFF districts, by contrast, receive per-pupil funding, so each TK student represents extra dollars. Some also maintain that the program is both costly and inequitable because it currently applies to only a small portion of 4-year-olds. 

Policies in the new state budget would gradually make transitional kindergarten open to all 4-year-olds in the state, but that may not ensure that basic aid districts offer the program, since it will not change the way these districts are funded. TK now serves about 100,000 children, most of whom turn 5 between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2. 

Citing research that high-quality early education programs can have a lifelong impact, some parents in districts that don’t offer TK say it’s unfair that their children lose out on the opportunity. In 2019-20, about 700 eligible students were unable to attend TK because it was not offered in their home districts, according to an analysis of CDE data done by parent advocates.

It was certainly a rude awakening for Fitzpatrick, who lives in the Del Mar Union district in San Diego County. The district eliminated transitional kindergarten in 2015, citing concerns about funding and equity. Like many homeowners, Fitzpatrick tried to pick a location that would guarantee her children access to a great public education.

“That’s one of the reasons we bought a home here,” said Fitzpatrick, who has organized a group of parents to advocate for TK through an online petition. “We live here because of the schools.”

Early childhood advocates have long asserted the critical importance of kindergarten readiness. Children who attend TK enter kindergarten better versed in reading and math skills than their peers who don’t, research shows. Some California school districts, such as Los Angeles Unified and San Diego Unified, have already taken steps to expand their TK programs given the clear educational benefits. 

Parent advocates wonder why their wealthy districts cannot afford the program, pointing out that only about a dozen of the state’s estimated 147 basic aid districts don’t offer transitional kindergarten. 

“It really doesn’t make sense since these basic aid districts already receive significantly more revenue per student than they would receive under the state funding formula, so they should already have more than enough money to provide TK,” said Allison Trent, a mother of two in the Cardiff School District of San Diego County. “School districts with more funding should be providing more services to the children in the community, not less.”

However, district officials in Cardiff and Del Mar say that offering TK would mean less money for other programs, like the arts and STEM, or for keeping class sizes low, which are high priorities in their districts.

“Funding is the issue,” said Holly McClurg, superintendent of the Del Mar district. “To offer TK would drastically impact the educational programs we currently offer for our K-6 students. It would add another grade level with no additional funding.”

Others are waiting to see how the state will implement universal transitional kindergarten before making a decision.

“We are eagerly awaiting more of the details from the state regarding the TK funding proposal, requirements and guidelines for districts,” said Kimberly Berman, superintendent of the Mill Valley School District in Marin County. 

However, some lawmakers say that the new law won’t require districts to offer transitional kindergarten, leaving the decision up to individual school districts. The new legislation expands TK and strengthens quality standards, according to Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, a longtime champion of TK, but it does not alter the funding model. 

That’s a pity, parent advocates say, because early education programs can help close the achievement gap, referring to the disparity in test scores among different groups of students. Those gaps have likely increased during the pandemic. 

The state does offer free preschool or child care to families who meet low-income requirements, whereas transitional kindergarten is designed to be open to all children, like kindergarten. There is no income qualification. 

“Providing a public TK program that is truly universal will be a great equalizer for our society,” Trent said. “All children should be able to access a high-quality early education program, no matter where they live, no matter their family’s ability or willingness to pay for a private program.”

TK-eligible families in districts that don’t offer it are often told to apply for spots in neighboring districts or to shell out the money for private preschool. That’s Fitzpatrick’s plan. She is going to put Owen in part-time preschool starting this fall, but she notes that not all families have that luxury. For many, paying for private preschool would be a financial hardship.

“There are people in these districts that cannot afford preschool,” Fitzpatrick said. “For our family, all of our extra income goes to pay for this.”

Preschool is often a pricey proposition in California. The median annual cost of child care for a preschool-age child is more than $10,000, research shows. Many families in high-cost parts of the state pay far more.

Ulrike Steinbach, a mother of two children in the Mill Valley district, where transitional kindergarten was discontinued in 2018 due to concerns over equity, also believes that the opportunity should be made available to all children because it guarantees access to a high-quality program with accredited teachers. Her older daughter, Anna, was able to benefit from the program while her youngest, Clare, was not.  

“The variability among preschool programs is great — ranging from programs with high academic standards to programs that are basically day care,” Steinbach said.

Steinbach says her older child was far better prepared academically and emotionally for school because of transitional kindergarten. She worries that if the state doesn’t take steps to fully expand the program now, when there is surplus money in the budget, it may never happen. In the wake of pandemic-related learning gaps, parent advocates say, there is no time to lose.

“If we do not support TK now, when so many young children have been adversely impacted due to the pandemic, then when are we going to support this valuable program?” Steinbach said. 

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