Credit: Allison Shelley for American Education
Kindergartners build a marble run inspired by a lesson about movement.

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This August, as schools reopened for the 2022-2023 school year, California welcomed many more students than ever before into its transitional kindergarten classrooms.

The state is investing $2.7 billion in early childhood education primarily through an expansion of transitional kindergarten. While transitional kindergarten (TK) has typically been available to children who narrowly miss the cutoff for kindergarten, the new policy gradually expands age guidelines over the next four years until all four-year-olds in California—nearly 400,000 children—are eligible for the program by 2026.

The transitional kindergarten expansion is being lauded as a significant step towards educational equity. High-quality early learning is linked to improved school readiness, increased rates of high school graduation and participation in college, and higher average monthly earnings. Access to preschool programs can level the playing field by ensuring more, if not all, children arrive in kindergarten well-positioned to succeed in school and beyond.

However, participation in transitional kindergarten (and kindergarten) is optional in California and school districts are not required to offer more than 180 minutes of instruction per day in TK. For working families, part-day preschool creates the challenge of identifying care options for the hours when children are not in school. Additionally, in part-day programs, there can be a tendency to prioritize academic skills over activities that emphasize play, social interactions, and relationship-building, all of which are critical for promoting children’s learning and development.

To bridge the gaps in access and quality, transitional kindergarten expansion must be complemented by a comparable investment in wraparound programs that address quality (like curriculum enhancements and after-school care) in order to make it a viable and attractive option for families.

Without such wraparound programming, families are unlikely to choose to enroll their children in transitional kindergarten, compounding the problem of declining enrollment—and defeating the purpose of equitably providing high quality early childhood experiences.

Currently, the Expanded Learning Opportunities Programs (ELO-P) funds after-school and summer school enrichment programs for transitional kindergarten through sixth grade. Whether or not the number of after-school spots will increase with transitional kindergarten expansion is an open question. In the last two years, staffing shortages and licensing delays have made the situation even more complicated and these are likely to continue without proper attention. Faced with a lack of after-care options (especially options that offer developmentally appropriate play-based programming) for preschool-aged children, primary caregivers may be hard-pressed to enroll children in transitional kindergarten and join the workforce.

As California proceeds on its timeline of transitional kindergarten expansion, the Expanded Learning Opportunities Program must expand and evolve to help after-school programs serve a greater number of children. But ensuring high-quality educational experiences is paramount. Studies show that low-quality care for children under 5 is detrimental to learning outcomes for years following that experience.

As school districts plan for transitional kindergarten expansion, administrators must champion for resources from the state to provide more slots to serve more children, higher wages for educators, and professional development through secondary service to prepare out-of-school professionals to work effectively with young children.

Advocating for services that wrap around transitional kindergarten can take many forms. We urge parents and caregivers to reach out to school board members and state senate and assembly representatives to share their needs and challenges. Make public comments at school board meetings to ask questions and voice opinions about the plans for out-of-school time programming. Press elected representatives to pass legislation that will foster partnerships between school districts and local two-year and four-year colleges to create a pipeline of after-school educators and generate resources to improve wages.

Early childhood in California is at an inflection point, as the state makes historic investments in transitional kindergarten over the next three years. In order for transitional kindergarten to deliver on its promise of truly universal preschool, the planning process must meet families where they are — by making a comparably historic investment in out-of-school time. Such an investment in children in their earliest years is an investment in our future.

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Ryan Hazelton is the executive director of Mariposa Kids, a nonprofit organization that supports and inspires children’s natural curiosity and independence through free play during their out-of school time.

Savitha Moorthy is the executive director of Tandem, Partners in Early Learning, a Bay-Area based nonprofit working at the intersection of early childhood and social justice to deliver high quality early learning.

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