Education

Law change means more 4-year-olds can qualify for transitional kindergarten

File photo: Children in the transitional kindergarten program play during recess at the Martha Escutia Primary Center.
File photo: Children in the transitional kindergarten program play during recess at the Martha Escutia Primary Center.
Mae Ryan/KPCC

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It’s been a good budget season for preschoolers at the local and state level.

First, Gov. Jerry Brown designated about $300 million in the state budget for child care and early education that is expected to add over 16,000 new seats statewide for children age 0 to 5.

Then just days ago, the governor signed a budget-related bill that clarified language about the state’s newest grade, transitional kindergarten, and opens the door to more 4 year-olds to attend preschool.

For many child care advocates, this is a huge step toward getting more kids into an early education program. The transitional kindergarten program is financially stable, like K-12 education, and not in danger of being cut entirely during lean budget years.

While the total number of transitional kindergarten seats that the law change will add statewide depends on individual school districts, Los Angeles Unified estimates it will expand its program by 2,808 seats in August.

Transitional kindergarten was introduced to the public school system back in 2010 when the legislature changed the age requirement for starting kindergarten from five by Dec. 1 to five by Sept. 1. 

The new grade, known as TK, was designed to prepare kids for the rigors of kindergarten. Yet only a quarter of the state's 4-year-olds qualified, those born between September and December who missed out on kindergarten.

Transitional kindergarten is not a mandatory grade, but unlike state-subsidized preschool classes where a child has to come from a low-income family to qualify, TK was open to any child who had the right birthdate.

After the new grade had a successful initial year, advocates began to push the legislature to expand TK to all 4-year-olds. A spirited advocacy campaign last year, known as "TK 4 ALL," didn’t gain traction among lawmakers.

The main opposition to the expansion was over cost. Should the state fund preschool for middle and upper-income children when so many low-income children still had no early education seat?

In March, Michael Kirst, president of the California State Board of Education, told KPCC that transitional kindergarten expansion was not a priority.

“At this point we do not have, in my view, enough money to subsidize all the middle and upper classes,” said Kirst. Money for expanding transitional kindergarten would have to come from the state general fund. At the time, Kirst foresaw too many other needs.

“So I live here in the very wealthy Silicon Valley and I don’t see that these well-off parents ought to be the priority for the subsidies from the state,” Kirst said.

Then on Wednesday, Brown signed into law an important change. Now children who turn 5 all the way up to the end of the school year will qualify for this full-day preschool program.

Kim Pattillo Brownson, director of educational equity at the civil rights advocacy group Advancement Project, was thrilled with the news. Yet she hopes transitional kindergarten classes at L.A. Unified will improve to meet the bar for what experts consider quality preschool learning: highly qualified teachers, small teacher-to-student ratio and incorporating play into the learning.

While she has been a vocal critic of the district for proposing then cutting a half-day preschool program for the upcoming year, Pattillo Brownson is encouraged by the moves to expand transitional kindergarten.

“[TK] has the promise of being a very effective program and also one with a sustainable revenue stream that should insulate it from future budget swings,” she said. 

In fact, she points out, it was LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines and the district's Sacramento lobbying staff that pushed through the age change for transitional kindergarten.

“Superintendent Cortines addressed the early ed committee [of LAUSD] and said he was looking for a solution. He then unveiled a plan a week and a half ago to move ... to a program that would serve 4-year-olds in a full-day program,” she said.

The difference between full-day and half-day preschool is important. “All of the academic literature suggests that, especially for low-income children, dosage matters, which means that the longer school day is important," Pattillo Brownson said.

Yet this is not a slam dunk for the state’s 4 year-olds. The change clarifies that school districts can enroll a child who will turn 5 by the end of the school year, but school districts will only begin getting paid the state's daily funding rate for that child when she turns 5. So if a child is 4 until March 30, the school district will foot the cost until her fifth birthday.

Some school districts may choose to allow children to enroll only when they turn 5, or like LAUSD, they might cover the cost so children can attend for a full year. LAUSD has committed $14.3 million to do just that. 

According to Maureen Diekman, the district's executive director of early education, there will be 117 new TK classrooms this August to accommodate the 2,808 seats.  

"It gives us an opportunity to serve more of our district's low-income students in a program that provides at least some reimbursement," Diekman said. They will likely be low-income because the classrooms are located in poorer neighborhoods, although anyone regardless of income could apply.

The district came under fire when Cortines announced he planned to close two successful preschool programs that meant the loss of over 10,000 seats. Teachers, parents and advocates rallied against the proposed cuts, and the district responded by using its muscle in Sacramento to push for more state dollars to help fund preschool, early ed advocates said.

Diekman said transitional kindergarten is a better preschool experience for 4-year-olds than the three-hour program the district is cutting. 

"This is a longer day for the students so it's an opportunity to provide more diverse activities for kids, more outdoor play, more of the exploration-type experiences that we want kids to experience," she said.

Parents who are interested in finding out if their child qualifies for transitional kindergarten should contact their local school district.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misquoted Kim Pattillo Brownson that TK at LA Unified is currently meeting benchmark quality standards. She said she hopes LAUSD will improve teacher-student ratios to meet high quality standards. The story also misstated the date by which students must turn 5 as March 31st. KPCC regrets the errors.