Advocates for the expansion of early learning in California are pleased with legislation that would extend transitional kindergarten to all 4-year-olds.
The Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2014, recently introduced by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and nine others including state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, would put $198 million a year into allowing all 4-year-olds to attend the new grade level. This would be phased in over a five-year period beginning during the 2015-16 school year. Transitional kindergarten came about as part of the state’s Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2010 and was created to serve younger students with birthdays between September and December. It is currently available only to 4-year-olds whose birthdays fall too late in the calendar year to be eligible for kindergarten. Students aren’t required to start school until age 6.
Hill said it’s a critical issue and one that makes a difference in savings that includes higher lifetime earnings for successful students, lower rates of students repeating grade levels, lower placements in special education programs and lower crime rates.
“Everyone knew the advantages of preschool education and early learning as a great investment for future,” said Hill. “Twenty years ago, I was working to develop early learning centers in the San Mateo-Foster City [Elementary] School District. We’re still talking about it and still not making an initial investment. There’s such a difference between those who start [school] at 4 and those who start as 5.”
Senate Bill 837 proposes a model of both a morning and afternoon session for two-teacher teams, reducing the Average Daily Attendance funding to $6,000. During the five-year phase-in period, 46,000 4-year-olds would be added each year to the Transitional Kindergarten for All program, eventually totaling 350,000 additional children eligible for transitional kindergarten. California has three major educational programs for preschool-aged children: state preschool, federal Head Start and transitional kindergarten. This proposal would effectively combine part-day state preschool for 4-year-olds with transitional kindergarten. The program would eventually provide transitional for all 4-year-olds, with an extra year of Head Start or Strong Start for children living in poverty, according to the bill. Funding for Transitional Kindergarten for All would total $990 million by 2019-20.
The 2010 readiness act did not legally make it mandatory for schools to offer transitional kindergarten, so this one would make it mandatory for schools to offer the program. Parents can voluntarily have their children attend at age 4.
“We got calls from two school districts saying they were not going to offer transitional kindergarten because in their legal opinion we did not make it mandatory,” Hill said. “So we needed some cleaned up language to do that. At the same time, I had talked to Darrell [Steinberg] to see if there was something else we could do with this.”
Local school officials are also stressing the importance of beginning education at an earlier age.
The San Mateo County School Boards Association took a stand on preschool education with its recent position paper, “Preschool is Just School: Closing the Achievement Gap by Rethinking the Starting Age of Public School.” The paper calls on policymakers and the education community to seriously engage in the topic of providing universal preschool, or early education, for all 3- and 4-year-olds. Association President Alisa MacAvoy, of the Redwood City Elementary School District, said the reality is there are budget implications to expanding to younger age groups and starting with 4-year-olds is a really good start.
“Steinberg’s proposal is in line with what our association would like to see,” MacAvoy said. “We feel like the opportunity gap starts at a very young age and the sooner we can get kids in an academic situation, the better. … The tricky thing is how do they fund it, but if you look at the research, eventually it saves us money.”
The current structure of U.S. public schools — including the K-12 grade framework — was established more than a century ago based on the goals, scientific knowledge and theories of child development at the time, yet this structure has been remarkably resistant to change despite the fact that our society, economy and the requirements of our public school system have changed dramatically, the paper states.
It goes on to state that less than 40 percent of children in the United States are ready for kindergarten when they get to public schools, creating an opportunity gap long before schools can address it properly.
“Many children who live in poorer households and neighborhoods are both less likely to have attended a quality preschool program and less likely to have resources and support outside of school during their K-12 years,” it states. “There is a mountain of evidence that this opportunity gap is created when children are young — 88 percent of those who drop out of school could not read proficiently by third-grade.”
The existing transitional kindergarten has a ratio of one teacher for 24 students. This expanded program would require a credentialed teacher and associate teacher, with a minimum of an associate of arts degree and 24 units of early childhood education, in each class of 20 students, lowering the ratio to one adult for every 10 students. School districts and charter schools would be allowed to contract with private transitional kindergarten providers who meet quality standards, according to the bill.
Advocacy groups are also excited about the proposal, including Early Edge California, a nonprofit organization working to ensure all children have the early experiences necessary to be successful learners by the end of third-grade, setting them on a path to college and career readiness. The group is co-sponsoring the bill with State Superintendent Tom Torlakson.
“We’re thrilled by the pro tem’s announcement,” said Molly Tafoya, director of communications for Early Edge. “We’re committed to ensuring this proposal is passed because it’s good for children. The reality is there is an achievement gap for children. The education of a child is a pipeline and we’re definitely advocates for expanded opportunities from birth to age 3.”
Some states already have universal access to transitional kindergarten, including Oklahoma, Georgia and Florida. New Jersey, New York, Alabama, Illinois, West Virginia and Vermont have regional or underfunded universal transitional kindergarten programs.
For more on the bill visit leginfo.ca.gov.
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