The state giveth, and the state taketh away. Or at least Gov. Jerry Brown is suggesting California taketh away its new transitional kindergarten program, as the state seeks to close yet another multi-billion dollar deficit. His proposal has unsurprisingly angered many early childhood education advocates. But is cutting transitional kindergarten—a hybrid preschool-kindergarten program for children who just miss the kindergarten cutoff date—really such a terrible thing?
California introduced transitional kindergarten as part of the 2010 Kindergarten Readiness Act, a bill that also moved the state’s kindergarten cut-off date from December 2—one of the latest in the country—to September 1. Moving up the cut-off date was initially touted as a way to save the state money ($700 million per year once fully implemented), since fewer children would be in kindergarten each year. Half of the savings would have been redirected to pay for an expansion of state preschool, while the other half would have returned to the state’s hemorrhaging general fund.
But during the sausage-making negotiations, transitional kindergarten made its way into the bill. Transitional kindergarten provides an extra year of preparation for children turning five between September 2 and December 2—children who may or may not be ready for kindergarten. (As a side note, I am an October baby and started kindergarten at age 4. Despite some of the horror stories you might read about us “young fives,” I did just fine in school. But I digress.) Under the bill that ultimately passed, all the savings from the cut-off change were instead redirected to paying for transitional kindergarten, which by some estimates may cost twice as much as state preschool. The requirement that transitional kindergarten teachers, unlike preschool teachers, be credentialed contributes substantially to this cost differential.
Transitional kindergarten proponents seem to have two main arguments against Brown’s proposal to eliminate the new program. For one, they contend, transitional kindergarten only requires funds that would have been spent on the children anyway—if they were in kindergarten instead. That may be true, but as the Los Angeles Times pointed out, the flat spending is only temporary: today’s transitional kindergarteners will be in the K-12 (or TK-12) school system an additional year. The state will have to pay for 14 years of school for each student who starts in transitional kindergarten, instead of the usual 13.
The second frequent argument against Brown’s plan is that transitional kindergarten will “help level the playing field for low-income and disadvantaged students by giving them an extra year of preparation.” While transitional kindergarten would certainly benefit many low-income children, it would also enroll plenty of well-to-do children whose parents can afford an extra year of private preschool and who will likely be school-ready with or without the new program.
If policymakers really want to better prepare low-income children for kindergarten, they should invest in means-tested early learning programs, like the California State Preschool Program, rather than a program that uses age to determine eligibility. By definition, these means-tested programs are better targeted at disadvantaged children. And the state preschool program is much cheaper. As a result, the same amount of money, or even less, could benefit more children. State preschool is in dire need of the funds: like other state programs, it too has suffered from cuts. It has a waiting list of 83,000 students and serves just 40 percent of eligible 3- and 4-year-olds.
I can understand why early learning advocates are protesting Brown’s proposal. Early childhood education in California is underfunded, and advocates have to take what victories they can get. Kids who must wait another year for kindergarten without access to high-quality preschool or transitional kindergarten stand to lose the most. But a better option exists: California could eliminate transitional kindergarten, invest half the savings in state preschool, and still prepare more disadvantaged children for kindergarten—because preschool costs are lower and because no funds would be spent unnecessarily on upper-income children. So perhaps this is an instance where the state is right to taketh away—as long as it giveth some of the savings to another, more worthy program.
Update: It looks like transitional kindergarten was spared the ax, at least for now. On Tuesday, the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Education Finance rejected Gov. Brown’s proposal to eliminate the program. It’ll be interesting to see what happens as the deadline for the full state budget approaches in July and legislators are forced to make some tough decisions (and/or resort to budget gimmicks).
Written by Education Sector policy intern Jennie Herriot-Hatfield.