How the state excludes summer babies from transitional kindergarten

Students in a transitional kindergarten classroom at the Martha Escutia Primary Center play the hundred board game. Instead of entering kindergarten at a younger age, these kids get an extra year to learn new skills and prepare for kindergarten.
Students in a transitional kindergarten classroom at the Martha Escutia Primary Center play the hundred board game. Instead of entering kindergarten at a younger age, these kids get an extra year to learn new skills and prepare for kindergarten.
Mae Ryan/KPCC

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Four year-old Eddie O'Neill had the unfortunate luck of being born in August.

The Highland Park preschooler is among a small group of children excluded by state law from enrolling in the public school system for transitional kindergarten (TK) simply because of the time of year he was born.

Eddie's mother, Nona Chiang, loved that her local public school – part of the Los Angeles Unified School District – had a transitional kindergarten class, and she anticipated the year when Eddie would be able to enroll. Yet when school officials told her he had the wrong birth date, she couldn’t believe it.

“I actually considered lying about his birthday and saying his birthday was [June] 24 instead of [August] 24 just to get him into the program, but I didn’t feel right doing that,” Chiang said.

The California legislature created the new preschool grade as a bridge year to kindergarten for the 2012-2013 school year when it also moved back the kindergarten starting age to five by September 1. TK was for children who would turn five in the months after that, from September 2 to December 2.

Then, in June 2015, Governor Brown signed a budget bill that amended the enrollment birthdate to “admit a child to a transitional kindergarten program who will have his or her fifth birthday after December 2 but during that same school year.”

As schools generally close for the summer around June, and TK eligibility starts September 2, this effectively leaves out only a small percentage of children – those born in July and August.

“A very small group of people do not have access to a free educational program that’s available to others,” Chiang said. “This is exactly what discrimination is.”

Ironically, this sense of arbitrary unfairness is heightened for families in the Los Angeles Unified district, since the district has actually gone further than any other California school district to enroll 4-year-olds. 

That same law amendment that pushed the enrollment birthdate, also said that school districts will only be paid for children to attend TK from the day the child turns five. So while schools can enroll a child born on a date before the end of the school year, if they are born from December thru June, the district itself has to foot the cost of the child’s education until her fifth birthday.

Because of this, most school districts have not widely enrolled children born after December 2, and TK remains a program that serves largely children with September to December birth dates.

LAUSD is the major exception. The district created a special program for the children born between December and June and called it Expanded Transitional Kindergarten. Last school year the district opened 117 ETK classrooms, and this school year it increased to 286 ETK classrooms. There are 6,500 children enrolled.

The price tag is about $43.1 million, said Dean Tagawa, executive director of early education for LAUSD, and the state only reimburses about $11 million of that cost. There is a smaller teacher to student ratio, which means the program costs more. Tagawa predicts the district will recoup the expense if the children go on to kindergarten at district schools.

While lauding LAUSD for paying the cost for so many more four year-olds to attend transitional kindergarten, parents like Nona Chiang chafe that her child is one of few who is left out.

She has to pay for preschool this year, and to match the same hours Eddie would have attended if he was in TK, Chiang pays about $12,000 for the year. It’s definitely a strain on the family budget to have this additional year of preschool, she said.

Chiang also worries that families who cannot afford private preschool will just keep children home, which puts them at a disadvantage when they start kindergarten.

LAUSD's Tagawa wishes he could enroll all 4-year-olds. “I think it would be a step in the right direction,” he said.

Yet current state law won’t let him do it. “The July and August [birthdates] are kind of out of luck but that’s because the state requirements don’t allow us to enroll July and August kids,” Tagawa said.

It would need a legislative fix. However, preschool advocates contacted by KPCC were unaware of any current legislative push to expand TK to all children. When they tried in 2014, the bill did not pass the legislature.

But Tagawa said that may be changing. “There are legislators who are bringing this up to attention,” he said. “It’ll appear probably somewhere in January when the new legislative updates come out.”