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Governor's revised budget would eliminate transitional kindergarten

Children in the transitional kindergarten (TK) program play during recess at the Martha Escutia Primary Center. TK was created by a new law called the Kindergarten Readiness Act in 2010.
Mae Ryan/KPCC
Children in the transitional kindergarten (TK) program play during recess at the Martha Escutia Primary Center. TK was created by a new law called the Kindergarten Readiness Act in 2010.

Some 4-year-olds in California may miss out on public preschool as Gov. Jerry Brown stuck to his Child Care Block Grant proposal in his revised budget plan released Friday that eliminates the transitional kindergarten program.

The governor doesn’t believe the state should pay for middle- and upper-income children to attend transitional kindergarten, said Jessica Holmes, an analyst at the California Department of Finance. 

“We have limited resources for early education,” Holmes said. “This focuses our limited funds on children who need it the most.” 

Holmes pointed out that while the programmatic elements of the transitional kindergarten program will be eliminated as of the 2017-2018 school year, the funds remain and will still pay for early education. She projects that for 2016-2017 school year the roughly $700 million the state would have spent on transitional kindergarten will instead be disbursed through the governor’s proposed early childhood block grant to local school districts to expand preschool services to low-income children.

After the governor announced his block grant proposal in January, the early education advocacy community was very vocal in its opposition to the idea of ending the transitional kindergarten program that was established in 2010 as the first of a two-year kindergarten program serving 4-year-olds.

Many advocates attended the stakeholder meetings held by the governor’s office, and over 200 gave official written comment. A large coalition of groups urged the governor to slow down the process and, instead of rushing into an overhaul of the system with very few extra funds, to instead find ways to bolster the existing system. 

Many advocates share the governor’s desire to get more low-income and at-risk children into preschool. Where they diverge is in the details of how to do it.

Kim Pattillo Brownson, managing director for policy and advocacy at the Advancement Project, said the governor has not heard the concerns raised by early education advocates at the stakeholder meetings. 

“Legions of stakeholders made clear that abolishing transitional kindergarten should be off the table and that keeping early learning funding down at pre-recession levels is unacceptable,” she said.   

“Abolishing transitional kindergarten and taking away early learning opportunities – rather than expanding them – just doesn't make sense, especially in the face the growing science supporting early education as well as the recent polling showing that 76 percent of Californians want our state to fund early learning,” Pattillo Brownson said.

The governor’s plan would channel the money from transitional kindergarten to local school districts to serve low-income children, so those who would miss out on a seat are children from families who earn above the poverty income threshold. 

In the Baldwin Park school district, which like most school districts runs both state preschool and transitional kindergarten classes, Ricardo Rivera, Director of Early Childhood Education, estimates that 20 to 25 percent of children will be out of a preschool seat if transitional kindergarten goes away. For those children, he said, “I am not sure there are many options at this point."

This worries Deborah Kong, president of Early Edge California. Transitional kindergarten children may come from families that earn just above the income threshold, but that will not be enough to pay market rates for preschool, she said. A recent report found preschool costs more than college in California. 

Furthermore, Kong worries that the early education infrastructure statewide might not be robust enough to absorb thousands of children looking for a private preschool. “The early childhood education system in California already can’t accommodate the children that need to be served, so it is a major concern and question [of] where children are  going to go?”

Another issue raised is funding. The money to be allocated to local school districts to run full day programs under the block grant proposal will not be enough, said Marilee Cosgrove, who runs early education programs for the Fullerton school district.

“The new proposal for funding does not cover the [state] preschool program that we have now,” Cosgrove said. Under the block grant the state would pay $6200 per year per child for a full day preschool program. Yet Cosgrove said they currently receive $4,200 per child for a half day program, and if they are to double the hours they should double the annual payment per child to $8,400. “So essentially there's a reduction in funding of about $2,400 per child. How do we compensate for that? Where will the extra funds come to supplement?” 

To serve more low-income children would require more money, advocates say. “The governor's revised budget fails to include any substantial new investment in early childhood development and education services to increase the number of low-income children serviced and improve the quality of ECE programs,” said Alex Johnson, executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund in California. 

Pattillo Brownson of the Advancement Project said she appreciated the fiscal caution, “but such a lopsided focus on saving for an upcoming Rainy Day ignores the fact that too many of California's children and families are already under water now and deserve our help today.” 

There are still a few weeks before this budget revision will become final, too short a time to make any meaningful change, said Deborah Kong of Early Edge California. 

“Approval of the budget would mean approval of  language, and there’s quite a bit of detail in the language and really not enough time for districts, for the field in general, for parents and others to really absorb it and understand it.”

Kong worries that parents will have less options if transitional kindergarten is eliminated. “People are going to be very surprised, many people are going to be scrambling,” Kong said. “Parents who expected to send their children to TK will no longer be able to have that option [come 2017.]”