New California law establishes ‘transitional’ kindergarten

10.14.2010 | Early Ed Watch | Linda Jacobson

Today we feature a guest post from Linda Jacobson, veteran education reporter and author of the policy paper, On the Cusp in California.
It’s been a long, hard fight—20 years—but early education advocates in California, and members of the legislature, have at last succeeded in moving the kindergarten cut-off date so that children will be 5 when they start kindergarten.
For years, the state had one of the latest cut-offs, Dec. 2, meaning thousands of children were entering public schools at 4. Under the Kindergarten Readiness Act, signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Sept. 30, the cut-off state will be moved to Sept. 1 over a gradual three-year period, starting in the fall of 2012.
Funds that would have been used to pay for those students in kindergarten will now be directed toward a “transitional” kindergarten (TK) program for students born after Sept. 1 but before December. The program could serve as many as 120,000 children per year.
Gov. Schwarzenegger called the legislation “a landmark accomplishment for early childhood developmental education in California.”
Experts have long said that the age at which children start kindergarten makes little difference in the long-run, and that teachers will always have students with birthdays spread out over several months.
But many in California said that the state’s increasing emphasis on academic standards and structure in kindergarten was just not a good match for many younger students. This was especially the case for 4-year-olds who might not have had any prior early education experience, notes Deborah Kong of Preschool California, an advocacy organization.
“It puts them on a more even playing field,” added Debra Weller, the president of the California Kindergarten Association.
According to a comprehensive study of the state’s early childhood population, conducted by the RAND Corporation, less than a third of the state’s 537,000 4-year-olds were being served by various publicly funded programs in the state, including the state preschool program, Head Start, Title I-funded classrooms, and child care.
Far more children are eligible for subsidized preschool or child care but are not able to find spaces because of limited access or because their parents are not able to afford the full cost. And in recent years, funding for the state’s existing early childhood services has been shaky. Every year, preschool centers that contract with the state to serve low-income families are forced to shut down because of delayed payments.
The transitional program—modeled after existing pilot efforts in Los Angeles, Long Beach and other districts—gives parents of older 4-year-olds a new choice. And while it will be paid for through the state’s regular school finance formula, it also comes as the legislature continues to restrict education funding in order to plug a $19 billion deficit. Weller says there are likely to be some creative methods used to implement the program. For example, some districts might consolidate TK classrooms at a few centralized sites instead of trying to have them at every elementary school.
“We can’t ask cash-strapped districts to create new space,” she said.
And instead of hiring additional teachers, districts will likely use slots vacated by retiring teachers and choose from the pool of teachers who received “reduction in force” notices because of budget cuts.
The program already has detractors among those who argue against universal pre-k. “Is this all part of a grand conspiracy to enlarge the public-education monopoly and employ more teachers? Don’t dismiss that thought,” wrote Thomas B. Fordham Institute president Chester Finn in a Sept. 9Education Next commentary. “Don’t suppose that school systems that do a miserable job of educating 5- and 7- and 17-year-olds will do miraculously better with 4-year-olds.”
The obvious question now, however, is what the transitional program will look like when it is implemented statewide. The new model gives reporters an additional setting in which to observe early education teaching practices and follow what elementary schools are doing to adapt to younger learners. Will the teachers who fill the new positions have early childhood credentials? How will the curriculum be different from what is being covered in kindergarten?
Catherine Atkin, president of Preschool California, said the new law “gives us an amazing opportunity to really roll up our sleeves.” She described the implementation of a preK-3rd  agenda around professional development, curriculum, standards and data that uses the transitional kindergarten program as a starting point.  Some of the same ideas are proposed in the New America Foundation’s 2009 report, On the Cusp in California: How PreK-3rd Strategies Could Improve Education in the Golden State, which looked at how the relationship between early learning programs and schools could be strengthened.
It’s likely, Weller said, that the new TK curriculum will resemble what kindergarten used to be before it became more academically focused.
Children will probably be expected to learn how to count to 10, recognize the letters in their name, know their shapes and colors and show a beginning awareness of letter sounds.  Weller said she hopes there is also a lot of time for active play and experiential learning. “We want it to be a well-rounded program,” she said.

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