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New legislation could bring universal preschool to California

Parents sign up four-year-old children for preschool, known as Transitional Kindergarten, at an informational meeting held by the Lynwood Unified School District on March 18, 2014.
Parents sign up four-year-old children for preschool, known as Transitional Kindergarten, at an informational meeting held by the Lynwood Unified School District on March 18, 2014.
Deepa Fernandes / KPCC
Parents sign up four-year-old children for preschool, known as Transitional Kindergarten, at an informational meeting held by the Lynwood Unified School District on March 18, 2014.
Students prepare to read a story with their teacher at the end of a year of classes at Stanley Mosk Elementary School.
Grant Slater/KPCC

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When over 200 parents showed up for a recent informational meeting at Lynwood Unified’s school district office, Kavin Dotson, who runs the district's Student Services, was amazed. The district wanted to explain the enrollment process to families of prospective transitional kindergarten students. Dotson only expected about 40 parents.

“It really excites me to see how many parents showed up tonight interested in the Lynwood Unified District’s Transitional Kindergarten program,” Dotson said. To him, it proved how much demand there is in Lynwood for preschool.

Of Lynwood’s 70,000 residents, close to one quarter live below the poverty line. Nearly ten percent of Lynwood’s residents are under 5 years old. Crunch the numbers, Dotson said, and that adds up to a sizeable number of potential TK students for the school district.

TK is California’s new grade that started after the state decided to gradually move the kindergarten starting age to children who turn five by September 1.  TK is described as the first of a two-year kindergarten program, similar in many ways to preschool. Being so new, and so similar to PreK, officials in school districts statewide, like Dotson, have spent many hours explaining the special role and purpose of this new grade to confused parents.

In California, the TK program only has one full school year under its belt. This June, the second class of TK students will graduate.  Advocates are now pushing to expand the program, opening it to all four-year-olds.

California's first year of TK was generally seen as a success, according to Deborah Kong, Executive Director of Early Edge California, a non-profit group that advocates for preschool access. She said that while there is no hard data yet to prove the success, teachers and principals statewide reported that transitional kindergarten students made “dramatic progress, especially in language and literacy.”

Yet Kong notes that in its current form, TK is only available to children who turn 4 between September and December - the students who previously would have been allowed to start kindergarten young. She and others want to change that to allow all 4-year-olds into the program.

It’s a local push for universal preschool that mirrors a national movement. Given the growing recognition that preschool is critical to later school success, the efforts to make TK available to all four-year olds in California has gained traction.

New legislation – SB 837 – introduced earlier this year in Sacramento and about to enter committee hearings, would officially add TK as a new grade, open to all four-year-olds throughout California’s public school system.

The bill’s author is Senate Pro tem, Darrell Steinberg. He worked closely with preschool experts, such as Early Edge California, to hash out the details. Steinberg said he does not want the state to “start from scratch” to build a new program. Expanding an existing program that is working will make it most likely to succeed, he said.  

Early Edge California has looked at other universal preschool programs to see what’s working.

“We know that the programs with the best outcomes have highly trained, well-educated teachers,” Kong said. The bill proposes that teachers have a bachelor's degree as well as a teaching credential with units in early child development.

Class size also matters, according to the experts. Kong said that the goal is to “reduce class size ratios” because research has proven that more attention to young  students is “more effective.”  SB837 proposes a 1:12 ratio in which each class of 24 children would have one qualified teacher and one teaching assistant.

To evaluate universal preschool (UPK) programs nationwide is no small feat. In fact, one of the foremost experts on universal preschool in the country, Georgetown University public policy professor, William Gormley said it’s even hard to agree on whether a program is truly universal.

“To some degree, UPK is in the eyes of the beholder,” Gormley said when asked how many states have universal preschool. In his estimation, just six states make the cut: Georgia, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Florida, Vermont and DC. If California were to expand TK to all four year-olds, regardless of family income, it would be by far the largest UPK program in the country.

Yet Gormley warns that the details matter. “So all PreK programs are not created equal,” he said. His research shows that Oklahoma’s program, based inside the public school system, is succeeding.

“When we looked at the school-based pre-k program in Tulsa, we found that instructional quality was superior to instructional quality in other school-based programs in 11 other states,” he said.

Tulsa teachers spent their classroom time wisely, Gormley said. “They were allocating their time more to basic pre-writing and pre-reading and pre-math skills than were their counterparts in other jurisdictions.”

Oklahoma doesn’t try to do it cheap. The state spends $10 thousand per child for a full-day program. Most of that money goes to teacher salaries, and teachers there must have a bachelor's degree and a teaching credential with units in early education. New Jersey spends even more per student and is also getting good results, according to Gormley.

California currently spends $3700 per child for TK, and this would jump to $6500 under the new expansion proposal. One reason for the increased spending is increased preschool teacher pay. Teachers, however, would need to have higher education qualifications, along the lines of Oklahoma.

Lupita Cortez Alcalá, Deputy Superintendent of the California Department of Education, said it’s critical to bring TK teachers on par with kindergarten and first grade teachers, and this pay equity would “likely attract the best into our system.”

Alcalá points out that adding a new grade to the public school system would transform the long established K-12 into TK thru 12. It would ultimately be funded, like the other grades, from Prop 98.

Advocates seek to protect TK from budget cuts by making it a permanent part of the public school system. The cost for year one would be an additional $200 million over what is currently spent on TK. So far, Gov. Jerry Brown has not included the expansion in his draft budget. If approved, it would happen gradually over five years, and when complete, would cost $1.46 billion. The money would come out of the projected budget surplus, a plan that faces opposition.

Republican Assemblyman, Tim Donnelley, is one of the most vocal critics of the plan. He calls it a “jobs program” – it is estimated to create 8000 jobs – which he sees as “payback” to the teacher’s union. Donnelley, speaking on KPCC’s Airtalk, said the budget surplus should be used to pay down the state’s debt or saved for future economic hard times - not used for preschool.

But the bill’s author, Senate ProTem Darrell Steinberg, is confident it will succeed. He says it's crucial that kids get that academic boost early enough to avoid playing catch up later on.

Steinberg says he puts a bug in Gov. Brown's ear every chance he gets. He believes that the new injection of funds to public schools with disadvantaged populations through the Local Community Funding Formula (LCFF) will help, but these same populations are the ones missing out on preschool.

“LCFF is great -- more money to low income kids, but that extra money will mean a lot less to a third grader if they’re already far behind, so we want to make sure they’re not far behind,” Steinberg said.