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Monday, August 2, 2021

COMMENTARY: Transitional kindergarten for all would hurt early education providers

Credit: Allison Shelley for American Education

Preschool students practice hammering plastic nails into a foam pad in a sensory center.

Early childhood experts agree that systemic educational equities cannot be addressed without equitable access to high-quality learning that spans from birth to age 5.

So it may come as a surprise that Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposal to expand transitional kindergarten (TK) to all 4-year-olds is met with disapproval from early learning advocates. The announcement is well-intentioned; however, it comes with a host of problems.

TK is a public school program originally created to accommodate 4-year-olds turning 5 between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2. Started in 2012, it’s essentially an extra grade before children enroll in regular kindergarten the next year. The governor’s proposal would expand the program to all 4-year-olds over time, regardless of their birthday. But transitional kindergarten wasn’t designed to serve children as young as 48 months. That’s what preschool is for.

Most don’t realize the devastating toll this would have on child care providers and, in turn, on working families. Due to the high cost of caring for infants and toddlers, child care programs rely on serving a range of age groups to keep costs down for parents. For many programs, this includes providing quality, accredited preschool curriculum for 4-year-olds.

Pulling 4-year-olds out of non-school district programs to attend TK will cripple the child care industry. Adult-to-child ratio requirements for children aged 0 to 2 are less than half of other age groups, which means providers will be forced to double their labor costs just to remain open.

This means the cost of infant and toddler care will skyrocket for all families, and more providers will close. Having just lost 8,500 child care centers, California families cannot afford higher costs and longer commute times or leaving their job to care for their children.

As child care providers who serve customers of all backgrounds throughout the state, we see firsthand why our wraparound services are fundamental. By utilizing our extended hours, weekend care and meal programs, families rely on us to deliver services TK is incapable of providing. Losing those services would be devastating to families.

Don’t just take our word for it – New York City provides empirical evidence. In 2014, the city expanded its universal preschool program to include 4-year-olds and, like Newsom’s proposal, ran them primarily through public schools.

The result? A 15 to 20% reduction in the availability of infant and toddler care, primarily impacting low-income areas. Erosion in the quality of these programs ensued, as providers were forced to reduce staff and cut costs. All this furthered the racial divide in accessing quality preschool, as concluded in a new study by researchers at UC Berkeley. California would see similar results if we were to implement the governor’s proposal.

Restricting free preschool to public schools is not worth these outcomes.

For these reasons, early learning advocates support “mixed delivery,” in which state-funded early learning programs can be in any school, licensed child care center, licensed family child care home or Head Start program that meets quality criteria.

A mixed-delivery system meets the needs of families by offering options that work best for their location and schedule, including wraparound care. Most important, it better serves the child. Science demonstrates that young children do better under the care of a single provider, rather than experiencing multiple disruptions a day.

The Legislature added some provisions to improve the governor’s proposal, including $200 million to help local education agencies (LEAs) with planning for TK, but that does not include non-LEA providers that don’t have state child care or preschool contracts, including 30% of Head Start agencies.

While we applaud this addition, it will not prevent any of the aforementioned consequences and helps a very limited number of families. Head Start programs are run by different kinds of agencies, and Head Start California has submitted a $50 million budget request to ensure those providers are treated equitably. We urge Newsom and the Legislature to allow transitional kindergarten to include the current network of qualified child care and preschool providers, in addition to public schools. This will save taxpayers by utilizing existing infrastructure.

The question is: Why wouldn’t our policymakers allow TK to be open to qualified, nationally accredited child care programs, as many other states do? By giving California families options for care and avoiding a crumbling of the child care sector, it seems to be the only solution that makes sense.

If New York City teaches us anything, it should be this: When it comes to implementing universal preschool, we ought to do it right.

•••

Christopher Maricle is executive director of Head Start California. Teri Davies is senior vice president of the Learning Care Group, West Division.

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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