California Democrats push for transitional kindergarten for all students

01.12.2014 | The San Bernardino Sun | Beau Yarbrough

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If the head of the state Senate has his way, every 4-year-old in California will have the chance to attend a year of school before starting kindergarten.

On Tuesday, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, unveiled the Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2014, which would extend transitional kindergarten — a program started in 2012 to give some of the oldest 4-year-olds, who would historically have been grouped with more advanced 5-year-olds, their own “transitional” grade prior to kindergarten — to all California children to start their academic career.

Like kindergarten, the expanded transitional kindergarten year would be strictly voluntary. Only three other states — Florida, Georgia and Oklahoma — offer a universal preschool program.

The idea got a warm reception among many in the Inland Empire’s Sacramento delegation:

“The idea of universal preschool or the idea of universal transitional kindergarten is a great idea — there’s nothing more important to the future of California than the education of our children. So anything we can do to improve the education of our children, we’ve got to try,” said Francisco Estrada, chief of staff for Assemblyman Freddie Rodriguez, D-Chino. “It seems like it would be a good idea.”

Others agreed.

“California’s economy will depend on a population comprised of students who are career and college ready upon graduation from high school,” Assemblywoman Cheryl R. Brown, D-San Bernardino, said Friday. “Since research shows that early education provides the foundation for a child’s academic career, we must ensure that all children receive the tools they need to succeed in kindergarten. As new sectors emerge, old industries return and existing careers evolve, an educated work force will become essential to our state’s ability to compete both nationally and globally. Therefore, an investment in early education programs today will reap dividends for the state’s economic success tomorrow.”

The big question mark for some legislators is the expanded program’s price tag.

“The transitional kindergarten proposal would create more early education opportunities for the children of working people,” said state Sen. Norma Torres, D-Chino. “I support the concept but want to make sure the program lives up to its promise. We can’t promise universal transitional kindergarten one day and then cut it years later. There must be a carefully though- out execution plan.”

Despite Democratic support for the idea — and Steinberg’s political clout — the idea may run into problems if it reaches the governor’s desk. While unveiling his budget proposal on Thursday, Gov. Jerry Brown warned against lawmakers using the state’s $3.2 billion budget surplus on new programs.

The bill estimates the cost per student at $6,000. (The state’s average cost for a K-12 student is $9,000.) The bill caps transitional classroom sizes at 20 students, along with requiring a teacher and an aide. Teachers would also be required to teach both morning and afternoon sessions.

Once fully implemented in the 2019-20 school year, Steinberg’s office says, the program will cost $198 million per year.

One of the Legislature’s top Republican leaders is similarly hesitant:

“We have to recognize and pay down our existing debts first before considering new state spending initiatives,” said state Sen. Bob Huff, R-Brea, who’s 29th District includes Chino Hills. “California’s education system hasn’t even begun to fully implement last year’s major (Local Control Funding Formula) reforms, which Republicans strongly supported, and there are many existing unfunded programs in K-12 that need to be addressed.

“I haven’t seen any data yet that shows Transitional Kindergarten will deliver results, but if it exists I will keep an open mind.”

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