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California Is Implementing Universal Pre-K With a Whole New Grade
A 2021 law committed to an “unprecedented” plan to give four-year-olds an early start on school. This year, it’s growing further.
By Paul Blest, More Perfect Union
Free, universal pre-kindergarten was arguably the centerpiece of the Biden administration’s Build Back Better framework, a $400 billion proposal to expand the concept of public education to include three- and four-year-olds. But the plan, like other family policies, was ultimately left out of the Inflation Reduction Act that passed Congress.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the dream of a high-quality education for all three- and four-year-olds in the U.S. went away. In fact, California is in the midst of implementing the latest and one of the most expansive programs in the U.S. to date, focused on offering transitional kindergarten as essentially a new grade in public schools.
Back in 2021, the state passed a budget guaranteeing access to pre-kindergarten for all four-year-olds by the 2025-2026 school year. “Universal Pre-K is California’s opportunity to ensure every child, regardless of background, race, zip code, immigration status or income level, gets the fair start they need and deserve on their path to success,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said at the time.
The state intends to phase in the program by gradually including more and more children into eligibility for transitional kindergarten, based on the time of year they were born. This year, eligibility includes children born between September 2 and April 2; by 2025, families of all four-year-olds in the state will be able to send them to public school.
Even more encouraging is that the state’s four largest school districts — in Los Angeles, Long Beach, Fresno, and San Diego — are moving more quickly to full implementation than required by the state.
“California’s expansion of universal preschool is among the most ambitious that has been attempted nationwide,” Hanna Melnick, a senior policy advisor at the education research nonprofit Learning Policy Institute, told More Perfect Union. While other states have offered universal preschool before California, Melnick said that the “scale and the speed at which [California] is rolling it out is unprecedented.”
The advantages of preschool
The vast majority of studies have shown that children who are able to attend high-quality preschool gain key social and some learning benefits, such as in literacy and math, that can persist into preschool, according to a 2019 LPI review of 21 publicly-funded preschool programs.
“Rather than continuing to debate whether to invest in preschool,” a 2019 LPI report on 21 different studies on preschool effectiveness concluded, “we recommend policymakers focus their attention on understanding what must happen in a preschool classroom and the K–12 school system to ensure their investments pay off.”
"Most researchers, there is consensus that high-quality pre-school has significant benefits for children,” Melnick said. “And they are particularly strong for children from low-income backgrounds and children who are dual language learners.”
Though many states offer some form of state-funded pre-kindergarten, the programs are rarely universal in the sense that they guarantee access to all students. The National Institute for Early Education Research has set a benchmark for universal status at 70 percent of all four-year-olds enrolled in preschool; as of January, only four states and the District of Columbia had hit that benchmark, according to the education news outlet Education Week.
Thirty-seven percent of California four-year-olds were enrolled in some form of preschool, according to Education Week. A California Senate Budget subcommittee report from earlier this year estimated that 52 percent of age-eligible children were enrolled in transitional kindergarten.
Transitional kindergarten in California was created to solve a narrow problem. In 2010, the state legislature passed a law called the Kindergarten Readiness Act, which moved the cutoff for kindergarten eligibility from December to September. In order to continue serving children in the late summer and fall, lawmakers required that school districts offer transitional kindergarten — a step between preschool and kindergarten — for students born between September 2 and December 2.
Though the program served a minority of children, researchers began seeing its effectiveness almost immediately. A 2017 report by the American Institutes for Research found that transitional kindergarten students had “stronger mathematics and literacy skills and are more engaged in their learning” than children who didn’t attend TK.
Transitional kindergarten differs from pre-school or other pre-K programs in that, as with all public schools, teachers are required to be credentialed. Beginning this year, the required student-to-teacher ratio is 10:1; the Learning Policy Institute estimates that at least 11,900 teachers will need to be hired throughout California to fully implement TK.
Transitional kindergarten isn’t the only way the state plans to achieve universal pre-k. The state also offers the California State Preschool Program for children from low-income families and is expanding it to include all income-eligible three-year-olds as well as children with disabilities.
The state also includes the federal Head Start program, other subsidized early childhood programs, and private preschool in a group that it says will help it achieve the goal of offering some form of preschool to every four-year-old. But since transitional kindergarten was already offered in California schools for some children, it became a natural centerpiece for the state’s plan.
There have been some snags with full implementation, most notably that statewide enrollment has lagged behind expectations. 91,000 students attended transitional kindergarten last year, according to the aforementioned California Senate report, which is 28,000 behind what the governor’s budget predicted in 2021-2022. California’s birth rate has also continued to decline and is now lower than it’s been in a hundred years.
But some districts such as the Los Angeles Unified School District have gone all-out on recruitment, using tools like billboards and robocall campaigns, according to the Los Angeles Times. LAUSD opened up transitional kindergarten to all four-year-olds this year, two years ahead of the state’s requirement, in compliance with a plan passed by the school board in April 2021.
Though the implementation has been mixed so far — some problems have been as obvious as potty training — Melnick says there are promising signs.
"There are more districts that are doing full-day transitional kindergarten than we expected,” Melnick said, and “fewer districts with major challenges than we expected.”
“You also hear anecdotally about some challenges,” she added, “because this is adding a totally new grade level to school, and during a time when districts are strapped for capacity because of all of the after-effects of the pandemic. So I think your [judgment of implementation] is dependent on what your expectations are.”