Children in California could have a new stepping stone into kindergarten under one of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposals in his May 14 updated budget.
Among his K-12 education proposals was a $2.7 billion commitment to creating a new grade — transitional kindergarten (TK) — available for all California 4-year-olds by 2024-25. It nearly echoes Assembly Bill 22, which also proposed a universal rollout of TK in California.
“If we get this proposal through the Assembly and Senate,” Newsom said when announcing the revision, “we can actually produce this result and get the ball rolling in a very meaningful way to change the trajectory of our young kids.”
The budget proposal also follows the governor’s goal announced last December to expand universal preschool for all 4-year-olds and income-eligible 3-year-olds in California.
While advocates and members of the legislature have been pushing for a rollout of universal TK in California for years, Newsom’s proposal has been met with concerns.
Transitional Kindergarten, Explained
California’s TK was created as a byproduct of the Kindergarten Readiness Act, which in 2012 changed the cut-off date for kindergarten registration.
So what’s the difference between TK and kindergarten? The latter is meant to prepare students for first grade, while the former offers kids the chance to get exposed to academic concepts without needing to master them.
“We say that students get the gift of time,” said Carole Chivaro, who teaches TK at Pacific Elementary School in Sacramento. “Kindergarten has lost a lot of playtime and socialization time because there is this push for the academic side. For the young 5-year-olds, especially, it’s really helpful to have this extra time. There’s a lot of learning that happens in play.”
Every public California school district is required to offer TK classes, but the grade itself isn’t mandatory and parents can opt out of sending their kids.
Chivaro said that TK is also unlike preschool, because the latter is geared specifically toward preparing activities for 3- and 4-year-olds.
Currently, children from the state’s low- and moderate-income families qualify for California State Preschool, which offers partial and full-day services.
The revised budget will not reallocate money to the California State Preschool program to make up for the losses in revenue it incurred during the pandemic, indicating that Newsom, for the moment, has prioritized TK over further funding preschool programs.
State preschool and TK have differences beyond age group, curriculum and income eligibility. One big difference is the staffing ratio. In TK, there’s one fully credentialed teacher for every 33 children, while state preschool has one for 24 children and one adult volunteer for every 8 children.
TK programs are not required to be full-day, while state preschool programs must run a full-day and part-day program for at least 246 and 175 days out of the year, respectively.
Transitional Kindergarten’s Legislative History
Assemblymember Kevin McCarty (D–Sacramento) in 2020 introduced AB22, which would expand access to TK for all 4-year-olds in California. It’s part of a suite of early childhood education bills passed by the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Education Finance in May.
Also included are the creation of more childcare slots, a bill for mandatory kindergarten and another that includes provisions for banning preschool expulsions.
Previous efforts to expand TK to all kids failed, but in Newsom’s May Revision, rolling out school for toddlers became a clear budget priority.
But there are differences between Newsom’s proposal and AB22. The governor’s plan would accelerate universal TK, making it operational in 4 years, as opposed to the 10 outlined in McCarty’s bill.
Meanwhile, AB22 would pair one adult with eight students in a 24-person class and 10 students for a class of 20. The governor’s proposal does not specify ratios.
Still, both want to make TK accessible to all California 4-year-olds. McCarty said Newsom’s proposal was “99% aligned” with his bill.
“I couldn’t be more pleased that we’re finally doing this,” he said. “It’s a no-brainer that education matters. But if you look at the top issues of the day, we’ve been trying to tackle things like this stubborn educational achievement gap, the school-to-prison pipeline, intergenerational poverty, and the remedy that all experts and economists point to is early education.”
He also said that TK in particular could fill a gap in the early childhood education system for middle-class families that earn above the income cutoff for state preschool but can’t afford to pay for a private preschool program.
“The majority of the state preschool students are 4-year-olds, so let’s say about two-thirds are 4-year-olds,” he said. “The simple math is that there are a lot of low-income 3-year-olds who aren’t served. Now, low-income kids are going to get two years of publicly funded early education, including TK through the public school system when they’re 4.”
Newsom’s Proposal & California’s Early Education System
California’s early education system includes more than state preschool and TK. There’s also Head Start, a free educational and childcare program for children as old as 5 from low-income families.
Michael Olenick, president and CEO of the Child Care Resource Center, said TK could “freeze” programs like California State Preschool and Head Start.
“If you can take your child to the local school, and you don’t have to say anything about what your income level is, it’s a pretty big motivator to not use the other two systems,” he said. “Then there’s the issue of where teachers are going to be, because schools pay much better than Head Start programs.”
Another concern is the TK curriculum.
Chivaro, the TK teacher in Sacramento, said creating universal TK would put a range of 4-year-olds into the same classroom, some of whom would turn 5 during their time in that grade.
“You have this wide variation in ability and developmental readiness for concepts — there’s a big difference in between one month to the next,” Chivaro said. “For a TK program to be truly effective, it should stick to the premise of getting children ready for kindergarten.”
Raisiene Reece-Carter, who runs All God’s Children Childcare in Victorville, said they were faced with having to become teachers on top of providing childcare.
“We were also fighting to get recognized as essential workers so that we could have access to the supplies we needed,” she said.
The Child Care Provider’s Union announced an agreement with Newsom in advance of the May Revision that included additional stipends, mental health support and reimbursements for children’s absences.
Reece-Carter, who is represented by the union, said that she hoped for more recognition for childcare providers in the May Revision.
“We haven’t had a raise since 2016,” she said. “Many providers have degrees and are educators — we’re not just sitting here watching children, we have full-blown programs. Every year, for example, I have a full blown summer camp. Family childcare providers, we work really, really hard. If we don’t work, families don’t work.”
With regard to childcare providers, Kristin Schumacher, senior policy analyst at the California Budget & Policy Center, said that the state legislature could have chosen to redirect more funding toward supporting childcare providers.
“Many would argue that the priority right now is to boost provider payment rates for subsidized childcare providers and state preschool providers, because they are based on data from 2016,” she said. “That would have been a different policy choice. Let's use funding to reimburse providers with fair and just rates.”
Nina Buthee, executive director of EveryChild California, called the May Revision a missed opportunity. She said she would’ve loved to see substantial rate reforms for early childcare and education programs, along with an expansion of childcare slots.
The early childhood education bill package containing AB22 addresses some of Buthee’s concerns, adding 100,000 extra childcare slots to the 100,000 that Newsom added in his budget. Senate Bill 246, which is also part of the package, establishes a single rate for all subsidized early care and education programs that recognized regional cost differences, as well as cost differences from ages.
On top of that, Buthee stressed the importance of taking time with the rollout of TK.
“Transitional kindergarten is a school-based option that works for some families, but not for all families,” she said. “If we really are trying to look at some universality for 4-year-olds, we need to stop and pause and set up a system that is seamless and that serves the whole family, that uplifts inclusive models.”
The May Revision will go to the legislature for approval in June, when the budget for the 2021-22 fiscal year will be finalized.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the cost of the transitional kindergarten proposal. It is $2.7 billion.
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