Courtesy of Emily Rubin/Oakland Unified
Students in Emily Rubin's Transitional Kindergarten class at Glenview Elementary in Oakland rest on new nap time mats funded through DonorsChoose.org.

Early childhood advocates, lawmakers and the governor are pushing to gradually expand transitional kindergarten (TK) to all the state’s 4-year-olds. But the moves are raising issues, such as the viability of the child care system and whether expanded TK might be too academic for younger 4-year-olds. 

Often described as a bridge between preschool and kindergarten, transitional kindergarten began in California in 2012. The program, often referred to as TK, now serves about 100,000 children, most of whom turn 5 between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2, narrowly missing the cutoff for traditional kindergarten. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Wednesday that he plans to use an unanticipated surplus in the general fund to phase in universal TK as part of his annual May budget revision. Starting in 2022-23, the program would roll out in annual increments, first to children turning 5 by March 2, then in 2023-24 for birthdays by July 2 and finally in 2024-25 for full implementation at an additional annual cost of $2.7 billion. 

Meanwhile, two bills in the Legislature capture the spirit of the Master Plan for Early Learning and Care and align with President Joe Biden’s campaign for universal preschool as a way to set children up for success in K-12.

“This is a giant step for California families, moving toward serving all 4-year-olds with quality preschool,” said Bruce Fuller, professor of education and public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. “Gov. Newsom remains keenly focused on a wise investment, despite all the nettlesome challenges he’s faced in the past year.”

Some early childhood advocates worry that expanding TK might undermine the child care system and also put too much academic pressure on young children who may not be developmentally ready for it. Others view this groundswell of support for early childhood education as unprecedented and heartening. They see it as a game changer because research shows that high-quality early learning can impact school readiness, high school graduation rates and even earning potential.

“We are very excited. This is the first time since I’ve worked in this field that we’ve seen such bold, historic proposals,” said Patricia Lozano, executive director of Early Edge California, a nonprofit organization that is co-sponsoring Assembly Bill 22, which would expand transitional kindergarten. “Our vision is that every child, no matter where they are born, no matter the color of their skin, will have all the opportunities to prepare them for kindergarten and for success in life.”

Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, has been pressing for a package of early childhood education bills, including Assembly Bill 22, to gradually expand transitional kindergarten to all the state’s 4-year-olds. Senate Bill 50 would open access to the state-funded California State Preschool Program (CSPP), which serves low-income children, to ages 3 and under, who could take the slots no longer filled by 4-year-olds, who would move to TK.

The bills are part of an “education package to lift up working families and our kids throughout California,” said McCarty, chairman of the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Education Funding. “We all know that early education matters from kindergarten readiness to make sure our kids are ready to thrive when they enter a public school system. And for moms trying to go to work or go to school themselves, we also know that this really impacts our economy and our workforce. We see it crystal clear during Covid-19 how much early education and child care impacts our economy.”

California lags

Early childhood advocates applaud any increase in access to early education, which many see as key to closing achievement gaps because about 90% of brain growth happens before kindergarten. Meanwhile, California, which has almost 3 million children under the age of 5, trails behind other states in terms of access, with only 37% enrolled in TK and the state’s subsidized preschool program. 

“The research shows that when a young child goes to school — not day care — they are far more likely to graduate from high school and go on to college,” Biden said as he called for universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds during a recent address to a joint session of Congress to roll out the American Families Plan

Investing in the nation’s children also seems popular with voters. A new Politico poll shows that nearly 3 out of 5 voters support Biden’s $1.8 trillion cradle-to-college education package. 

The hit to child care

However, the latest push to expand TK to more 4-year-olds comes just as the early learning and care system has been hammered by the pandemic. Some preschool and care providers say expanding the program now may undermine the fragile child care sector by taking 4-year-olds out of child care centers and moving them into TK. 

“It feels like an erosion of our child care centers that is on the way,” said Makinya Ward, administrator at Kids Konnect Preschool, which runs centers in San Mateo and Alameda counties. “The bottom line is that we are going to lose our 4-year-olds, and many enjoyed working with that age.”

Asking child care providers to switch to younger children, the 0-3 cohort, may be more complicated than it sounds. Because babies and toddlers require far more individualized attention and care than older children, it’s a big lift for providers to redesign their programs, some suggest. 

“We are losing a big part of our business model,” said Christopher Maricle, executive director of California Head Start. “You need the 4-year-olds to make the numbers work. Zero to 3 is a very expensive gig.” 

Doubts emerge

Opponents are also questioning whether the K-12 system is the ideal space for pre-K programs, arguing that it might be smarter to expand the state’s preschool programs instead. With its small class sizes and play-based curriculum, some argue, the preschool approach may be best suited to spark a love of learning. 

“Our biggest problem is that it [TK] bypasses the existing field of early childhood education that was designed with the young child at its core,” said Holly Gold, owner of Oakland-based Rockridge Little School. “Young children need to be in environments that are designed for them. That’s why there is so much research showing the benefits of early childhood education. Adding a classroom at elementary schools and shutting out all the early childhood centers and professionals is not the answer.”

Only affluent families will be able to afford to choose private preschool over TK, they argue, which may further widen the achievement gap, the learning divide between wealthy and disadvantaged students. Of course, this is true for all levels of education, from preschool to college. 

Only families with economic resources will be able to opt out of TK,” said Beatriz Leyva-Cutler, executive director of BAHIA Inc., which provides bilingual child care and education in Berkeley. “Is that equal? Does this provide equity to families of color? Give families options for the type of services that fit working families.”

Another key concern is the larger class size often associated with K-12 classrooms. Many young children need individualized instruction and personal attention in order to thrive. The average transitional kindergarten class size is about 17 students to one teacher while Head Start and state-subsidized preschool have only eight students to one teacher.

“There are concerns that the people with elementary-level credentials are not trained to work with young children, and that class sizes will be too large,” said Deborah Stipek, a professor in the Stanford Graduate School of Education and an early education expert. “There are many who are very concerned that this will lead to pushing an academic curriculum that will involve developmentally inappropriate teaching, fail to attend to other important dimensions of development, especially social development, fail to provide young children opportunities to play, and not involve parents as partners, as is expected in early childhood programs.”

Some say TK teachers lack the expertise of preschool teachers, who may be better versed in the developmental needs of younger 4-year-olds, an age group in which social and emotional learning may be more critical than math or reading skills. 

“Four-year-olds need consistency, attachment and nurturing. They are still very small,” said Kim Kruckel, executive director of the Child Care Law Center. “They need to be cared for by experts who understand that they need to play, take naps, laugh and be cared for. “

Quality may also be a sticking point. After all, TK did not get high marks 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 TK program only met three of them.

Class size and specialized teacher training were among the key concerns. Some experts say that raising the consistency and quality of the programs must go hand in hand with increasing access. 

A blend of the best

“The ideal plan would allow California to take the best of its preschool and TK and combine them together into one program. It will take some time to build quality, but you have to bring everyone in as you build it,” said W. Steven Barnett, senior co-​director of NIEER. “Expansion can be done with a timeline that gets all teachers highly qualified and adequately paid, with a single continuous improvement system to ensure that all children get what they need. It would be wise to figure out how fast the program can expand without sacrificing quality.”

Innovative solutions may be the answer, Lozano of Early Edge California suggests. Some school districts, such as Los Angeles Unified and Oakland Unified, already offer expanded transitional kindergarten, allowing children who turn 5 after Dec. 2 to enroll. Others, like San Diego Unified, have California State Preschool Program and TK teachers working side by side in classrooms to leverage the best aspects of both educational styles to reach 4-year-olds. 

Many early childhood advocates who support the TK expansion maintain that all the concerns can be addressed in the way the expansion is rolled out. For example, the AB 22 legislation now includes plans for wraparound care for children attending transitional kindergarten who need care after the school day, teacher-child ratios that allow for meaningful adult-child interactions and high-quality professional development. They also point out that parents will get to choose whether to stay in a Head Start or state preschool program or shift to TK, based on what’s most convenient for them. 

“There’s politics and there are a lot of competing interests. This is a big change, and change is hard, but I think we need to think about the kids more,” said Lozano, who is a former pre-K teacher. “What we know about TK from the research is that it works, especially for the kids who need it most. This is an opportunity to make it happen. This is the time. We can find a way to make this work for everyone.”

Lozano notes that TK is already popular with parents and that some mothers actually try to plan their pregnancies so their children will likely be able to attend TK. And a new poll shows that 70% of Californians support publicly funded early learning programs.

Many early childhood experts believe that it is crucial to bring early childhood education to more children while there is national momentum building for the policies, even if there are some issues to be ironed out.   

“There is merit to all of the concerns, but they can be addressed by making sure that TK teachers are well prepared to teach young children using developmentally appropriate approaches, that class sizes are kept relatively small, and the administrators are given training in early childhood education,” Stipek said. “What we in the field need to do is press for policies and practices that will make this work for young children and their families.”  

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  1. Joe 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    My son qualifies for TK this year and honestly it’s pretty worthless. It’s three hours a day with no options for after-school care because the program is so impacted. There are also school breaks, closures, minimum days, and let’s not forget all of summer. I doubt TK will do much for working parents.

  2. Carolyn Forte 1 month ago1 month ago

    Thank you for a very informative article. Isn't it ironic that when California children weren't even required to go to school until age 8 and most children started school in the first grade, California ranked first in quality of education. Now that we want to push "early education" on 4 year olds, we rank near the bottom! Maybe someone should take a look at the changes in curriculum in the last 50 years. The … Read More

    Thank you for a very informative article. Isn’t it ironic that when California children weren’t even required to go to school until age 8 and most children started school in the first grade, California ranked first in quality of education. Now that we want to push “early education” on 4 year olds, we rank near the bottom!

    Maybe someone should take a look at the changes in curriculum in the last 50 years. The California standards for TK are more demanding than those for kindergarten in 1970. Research shows that any “gains” made by pushing academic standards on young children disappear by third grade but the damage caused by pushing too much too early can be life long.

    Stanford’s Deborah Stipek states the problem perfectly. This article explains what research shows: https://deyproject.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/readinginkindergarten_online-1.pdf

  3. Nicole 1 month ago1 month ago

    For a win-win situation, if TK becomes universal to all 4-yr-olds, then direct funding for licensed Preschool Teachers to get their Multi-Subject Teaching Credentials needs to also be implemented! I am a former CA State preschool teacher, with my AA in Early Childhood Ed, my BA in Child Development, and I recently went on to receive my CA Credential, in order to now teach TK (for the past two years.) This position does … Read More

    For a win-win situation, if TK becomes universal to all 4-yr-olds, then direct funding for licensed Preschool Teachers to get their Multi-Subject Teaching Credentials needs to also be implemented! I am a former CA State preschool teacher, with my AA in Early Childhood Ed, my BA in Child Development, and I recently went on to receive my CA Credential, in order to now teach TK (for the past two years.)

    This position does require a minimum of 24 ECE units along with one’s credential, but even more so I believe it is the background experience working in a pre-k setting and knowledge of Preschool Learning Foundations and DRDPs which is essential in doing what I do. Instead of expanding TK however, I am more interested in seeing funding go toward preschools, raising salaries of the teachers to lower the turnover rate, providing more professional development opportunities, and in general investing in the adults who care for and teach these young kids!

  4. Michelle Hoffmann 1 month ago1 month ago

    Transitional Kindergarten is a terrific option for many families. It is not the solution for all families. Unfortunately, the proposed legislation (AB 22) that expands TK across California, falls short for many families, communities across the state, and especially for childcare workers who kept our state functioning during the long year of Covid. While well-intentioned, this bill does not promote family choice and isn’t the solution to addressing the diverse needs of California families.

  5. Kim Kruckel 1 month ago1 month ago

    Communities work well when our children are cared for, learning and socializing. No matter our background, that's what we all want for our kids. Our policymakers in Sac and DC have ignored the care and early learning for little ones - for the past hundred years, actually. Now, for the first time since WWII, we have major new funds for child care and early learning (thanks to years of advocacy by … Read More

    Communities work well when our children are cared for, learning and socializing. No matter our background, that’s what we all want for our kids.

    Our policymakers in Sac and DC have ignored the care and early learning for little ones – for the past hundred years, actually. Now, for the first time since WWII, we have major new funds for child care and early learning (thanks to years of advocacy by all of us).

    One option would be to increase funding to the community-based preschools and child care programs that already exist to help parents work and children socialize. Instead, state leaders are proposing “adding a grade” to our school system through universal TK.

    Many parents think this is great – primarily because they need a break on the high cost of child care.
    And that is the real issue – our government needs to step in on all fronts to pay for child care and early learning.

    TK may be a piece of the solution – preschool for more children and costs savings for parents. But the TK proponents can and must include in this conversation, and in the plan, the experts in child development, learning, diversity and nurturing who have been providing this service all along.

    Kim Kruckel, Executive Director, Child Care Law Center

  6. TK4AllCalifornia 1 month ago1 month ago

    Newsom’s plan and AB 22 need to address the issue of basic aid school districts opting out of TK entirely. Currently 12 basic aid elementary districts in San Diego, San Mateo, and Marin Counties choose not to use their general funds to provide TK. Basic aid districts are wealthy districts who receive more in property taxes than they would through LCFF. However, these rich districts say they cannot afford TK. Over 700 students annually are denied … Read More

    Newsom’s plan and AB 22 need to address the issue of basic aid school districts opting out of TK entirely. Currently 12 basic aid elementary districts in San Diego, San Mateo, and Marin Counties choose not to use their general funds to provide TK. Basic aid districts are wealthy districts who receive more in property taxes than they would through LCFF. However, these rich districts say they cannot afford TK.

    Over 700 students annually are denied access to TK in these districts. If TK is expanded, over 3,000 students will be denied TK in these districts alone. TK-eligible children and their families are told by these wealthy districts to petition for TK spots in neighboring LCFF districts or find and pay for a private preschool. School boards in these districts have all voted to discontinue TK even after substantial community outcry. These districts will most likely continue to shirk their role in offering greater access to early ed if they are not mandated to participate in some form.

    As many posters have shared, TK can be delivered in a variety of settings, including maintaining programs at private preschools, if funding is allocated properly. That being said, all elementary and unified school districts should be required to offer a TK program of some kind as an option to families. Not all families in wealthy basic aid districts can afford private preschool and it is unfair to ask families to petition for spots in neighborhoods that are far away and may or may not have space.

    The governor and local legislators need to do more for these districts’ 4 year olds and their families since the districts and school boards will not. If this is not addressed, it is also very likely that more basic aid districts will follow suit and discontinue their TK programs too, especially if TK is expanded.

  7. SD Parent 1 month ago1 month ago

    The first step in better school readiness lies with the parents. The fact that my children knew their alphabets, numbers, how to write their names, and even how to read small words when they entered kindergarten had absolutely nothing to do with their preschool hours (which were just 5-6 hours per week for 30 weeks, and focused primarily on socialization) and everything to do with what we parents did with them when they were with … Read More

    The first step in better school readiness lies with the parents. The fact that my children knew their alphabets, numbers, how to write their names, and even how to read small words when they entered kindergarten had absolutely nothing to do with their preschool hours (which were just 5-6 hours per week for 30 weeks, and focused primarily on socialization) and everything to do with what we parents did with them when they were with us.

    TK makes sense for English Learners, but mass expansion without a plan is like flying an airplane while you build it and is doomed to fail. The limited supply of teachers should be focusing on the current students and their massive learning loss due to the pandemic and the ineffectiveness of “distance learning.” Leave the mass expansion of TK until there is an effective implementation plan and sufficient, trained educators to staff it.

  8. Jeilyn Planos 1 month ago1 month ago

    In the middle of the Pandemic the schools and centers closed their doors and just the child care providers stayed open working for the essential workers, and now they want they completely forgot all what we did. I’m a child care provider in Palm Desert and if this happens it will affect my family and my business.

  9. Dr. Susan Ratliff 1 month ago1 month ago

    TK is not perfect, but it is a great resource for those who do not qualify for state-funded preschool. If we want to give more access we need to be more flexible. The state has not given any mandates on the curriculum or assessment of TK. If the CDE would mandate the DRDP for TK, I believe we would get much closer to the quality we want for our 4-year-olds. Let's … Read More

    TK is not perfect, but it is a great resource for those who do not qualify for state-funded preschool. If we want to give more access we need to be more flexible. The state has not given any mandates on the curriculum or assessment of TK. If the CDE would mandate the DRDP for TK, I believe we would get much closer to the quality we want for our 4-year-olds. Let’s support more access to education and support TK for all.

  10. Holly Gold 1 month ago1 month ago

    Great article. One option not addressed: 9-month part-time public school TK cost at least $12,500 annually. Why not allow parents to use those funds in community-based licensed preschools.

  11. Danielle Roach 1 month ago1 month ago

    The way AB22 is currently written is not putting children, parents or teachers best interest first. A mixed delivery system is what we should be working towards and AB 22 is not that.

  12. Jay 1 month ago1 month ago

    The K-12 system is already stretched too thin. Instead, offer vouchers to be used at any type (public, private, faith-based) of preschool. These vouchers will become invalid once a child reaches a certain age, which will be when the student is eligible for TK or Kindergarten.

  13. Beatriz Leyva-Cutler 1 month ago1 month ago

    AB 22 diminishes the decades of dedicated child care workforce, programs and diverse delivery system that have been provided to working families. Not all schools are equal in providing the cultural and language diversity that preschool programs provide to families. AB 22 proposes that only public schools (LEA) are qualified legitimate providers to provide preschool care and education to 3 and 4 year old's. We are not opposed to school districts joining the early learning … Read More

    AB 22 diminishes the decades of dedicated child care workforce, programs and diverse delivery system that have been provided to working families. Not all schools are equal in providing the cultural and language diversity that preschool programs provide to families.

    AB 22 proposes that only public schools (LEA) are qualified legitimate providers to provide preschool care and education to 3 and 4 year old’s. We are not opposed to school districts joining the early learning field – just don’t take away parent choice to access other quality child care delivery systems that meets the needs of a working parent, nor swipe away the funding that for decades ECE programs have been advocating for.

    Making this change is not hard for the ECE field – what is hard is placing our youngest children in a system of education that is not equitable, nor guarantees the credentialed teacher looks like the demographics of a TK classroom or speak the language of the family/child. In preschool programs like Head Start, family day care and community based programs we do – and we are experienced in family engagement and involvement 10 hours a day, 241+ days of the year.

  14. Jim 1 month ago1 month ago

    Completely crazy article. What percentage of 4 year old kids actually go to TK or a “TK Like” program? What is not stated is that TK is designed to overcome poor parenting.

  15. Sue Britson 1 month ago1 month ago

    AB22 does not give low income families a say in the early learning program of their choice. We know that low-income working families prefer to have full day care (not a 3 hr TK) with consistent teachers (not pieced together wraparound services) and mixed ages (so sibs can be together), and therefore would prefer to stay in their current subsidized programs. UTK will become their only free option as other subsidies are severed. AB … Read More

    AB22 does not give low income families a say in the early learning program of their choice. We know that low-income working families prefer to have full day care (not a 3 hr TK) with consistent teachers (not pieced together wraparound services) and mixed ages (so sibs can be together), and therefore would prefer to stay in their current subsidized programs.

    UTK will become their only free option as other subsidies are severed. AB 22 is a ‘one size fits all’ approach which we know is not a recipe for success in education. The state should use the additional monies to expand access to the current mixed delivery system (TK in San Francisco is part of such), implement the Master Plan for Early Care and Learning and its standards, and allow 3 and 4 year olds to thrive in programs that suit their individual learning and socio-emotional needs.

  16. kathleen berland 1 month ago1 month ago

    I appreciate this article, as a director of a small, non-profit preschool that is just barely surviving the pandemic. We received 2 rounds of PPP funding, which enabled us to keep teachers on health insurance and on salary up to a point, but our savings and our enrollment have been severely impacted. Now these new proposals stand to further threaten our school and our teachers' livelihoods. Most preschool teachers do not have K-12 multi subject … Read More

    I appreciate this article, as a director of a small, non-profit preschool that is just barely surviving the pandemic. We received 2 rounds of PPP funding, which enabled us to keep teachers on health insurance and on salary up to a point, but our savings and our enrollment have been severely impacted. Now these new proposals stand to further threaten our school and our teachers’ livelihoods.

    Most preschool teachers do not have K-12 multi subject teaching credentials, which would be required for one teacher in each proposed TK classroom. This will decimate the field of very experienced and caring preschool teachers and largely preclude them from moving into those higher-paying TK jobs! Meanwhile also reducing ultimately by half the number of children our schools will be able to serve. While most in our field are thrilled about the focus on and proposed funding for universal early education for young children, I hope that going forward families, child care centers, and early childhood educators are given a place at the table to consider the ways in which these funds are spent and the impact on the already struggling field of early care and education in California.

  17. Alexandra Dutton 1 month ago1 month ago

    Why are we creating a whole new grade in a system that has failed so many this year? Adding 4 year olds to an already fragile, large, over-encumbered public school system is going to create more issues than it solves. If the state can instead find ways to include the great preschools and childcare systems that already exist, that would be best for everyone. Child care programs that offer full day, year-round care … Read More

    Why are we creating a whole new grade in a system that has failed so many this year? Adding 4 year olds to an already fragile, large, over-encumbered public school system is going to create more issues than it solves. If the state can instead find ways to include the great preschools and childcare systems that already exist, that would be best for everyone. Child care programs that offer full day, year-round care will cease to exist if this age group starts leaving their programs – which means there won’t be infant or toddler care for families either. #amendAB22

  18. Dave Esbin 1 month ago1 month ago

    AB-22 destroys the full-time subsidized childcare system we have today for low-income families and replaces it with inadequate part-day, part-year care. It's a step backwards for Universal Preschool and California children. This pandemic has shone a rare spotlight on the value of childcare. But this past week, with slowing employment numbers, we also saw glimpses of what will happen without sufficient supply of childcare spaced that accommodate the schedules and settings that work for families. … Read More

    AB-22 destroys the full-time subsidized childcare system we have today for low-income families and replaces it with inadequate part-day, part-year care. It’s a step backwards for Universal Preschool and California children.

    This pandemic has shone a rare spotlight on the value of childcare. But this past week, with slowing employment numbers, we also saw glimpses of what will happen without sufficient supply of childcare spaced that accommodate the schedules and settings that work for families. Without full-day, full-year subsidized care, our economy will not recover, and millions of women will be unable to rejoin the workforce. California needs Universal Preschool, but TK is not that, by a country mile.