Politics & Government

California lawmakers want transitional kindergarten to cover all 4-year-olds

California lawmakers have embraced the idea of allowing every 4-year-old in the state to attend pre-kindergarten classes, greatly expanding a much smaller program to make what would be the most comprehensive pre-kindergarten curriculum in the country.

Democratic caucuses in the Assembly and Senate this week introduced legislation on the subject and are calling universal pre-kindergarten a priority in upcoming budget talks. Gov. Jerry Brown has been silent about whether the program will be part of the spending plan he releases Friday, but advocates have made their case to the administration in recent months.

Supporters of universal pre-kindergarten, also known as transitional kindergarten, point to research showing that it plays a significant role in helping put children on a path to success in school. They say that translates into higher graduation rates, less crime and a better workforce.

Most significantly, California finances are in far better shape following years of cuts and bare-bones budgets. That has opened a window of opportunity for a program that would add an estimated $1 billion in costs to the state general fund.

“Yes, we have to be wise about how we deal with our budget surplus,” Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said during a news conference Tuesday at Harkness Elementary School in south Sacramento, where he and other Senate Democrats touted the caucus’s pre-kindergarten bill. Creating a rainy-day fund and paying down pension and other debt are important, he said, but universal pre-kindergarten would be “wise spending.”

“There are few better uses of taxpayer dollars than investing in evidence-based change providing young people, 4-year-olds, the head start that they need,” he said.

Assembly Democrats included universal pre-kindergarten in a blueprint of budget priorities last month. The Assembly proposal would take full effect in 2019 and the Senate’s would phase in by 2020. The classes would be voluntary in both proposals.

While some states, such as Oklahoma, have adopted universal preschool, no state has adopted universal pre-kindergarten. Transitional kindergarten involves more specialized curriculum and the classes are taught by credentialed teachers. The Senate plan, for example, would create 8,000 teaching slots for class sizes of 20 children or fewer.

“If you can figure out a way to pay for it, it certainly makes a lot of sense,” said Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. “As the economy comes back, I do think you’ll see more cities and states doing this.”

The momentum for transitional kindergarten in California marks a turnaround from only a few years ago.

California’s current transitional kindergarten program was part of a 2010 bill that cleared the Legislature with no votes to spare only minutes before lawmakers adjourned for the year. Then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the bill on the last day.

A little more than a year later, Brown proposed scrapping the program before it even started as a way to save money. Lawmakers balked, and the program began to take effect in late 2012.

Joyce Stone, the public-policy chair of the California Association for the Education of Young Children, said interest in early-childhood education has mushroomed in recent years, drawing attention from economists and former Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. In his State of the Union address last January, President Barack Obama called for universal preschool.

“People are really paying attention to that now,” Stone said.

California’s current transitional kindergarten program applies to 4-year-olds who turn 5 in October, November or December. That age group was affected by the 2010 bill, which requires children to turn 5 by Sept. 1, instead of Dec. 2, to attend kindergarten. The state began phasing in the program, one month a year, in 2012-13.

The phased approach has been problematic, said Mike Fine, deputy superintendent of Riverside Unified School District, one of the largest in the state. The relatively small number of 4-year-olds who qualify for transitional kindergarten means some schools have to combine transitional and traditional kindergarten classes.

“There’s been a lot of confusion,” Fine said. “How do Mom and Dad explain why Mike isn’t going to first grade with his friends?”

In its November fiscal outlook, the Legislative Analyst’s Office said there would be $7.7 billion in new money for schools by 2014-15. Senate Democrats pegged the cost of their program at about $1 billion by 2020, which would create slots for an estimated 350,000 children.

Tuesday’s proposal would phase in all 4-year-olds over five years, at an estimated cost of $198 million annually. By June 2020, there would be slots for all of the estimated 350,000 eligible children.

There has been skepticism about the idea of making all 4-year-olds eligible for pre-kindergarten. In its reviews of the 2010 law, the Legislative Analyst’s Office has suggested that the state target the program at low-income and English-learning children, not those of well-off and well-educated parents.

Steinberg disagreed. “Every 4-year-old should and can benefit from getting an early start,” he said.

The Governor’s Office declined to comment on any early-childhood programs in Friday’s plan. Steinberg said he did not know whether Brown will address the issue in his budget. Deborah Kong, president of Early Edge California, the sponsor of the Senate legislation, declined to detail conversations she has had with administration aides.

Yet the Democratic governor and his advisers are well aware of the issue, said Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, a former state lawmaker who carried the 2010 legislation that created the current transitional kindergarten program.

“I have heard from sources close to the governor that he’s been developing a growing interest in early-childhood education,” he said. “It really would be a crowning achievement for something that started back in 2010 to become universal.”

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