What California Parents and Teachers Need to Know About Universal Transitional Kindergarten

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A little kid in a bright yellow sweater, sitting in the sun on a mat amid other little kids with their hands up, raises her hand.
Children at Mission Kids preschool in San Francisco raise their hands to ask U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla a question on June 1, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Even as the pandemic continues to disrupt the way children learn, California is poised to make a historic investment in its early education system. Championed by Gov. Gavin Newsom and many lawmakers, the new $2.7 billion universal transitional kindergarten program is being hailed by many experts as a game changer for families in California with almost 3 million children under the age of 5.

In keeping with President Joe Biden’s vision of universal preschool, this expansion of the current TK program will create more equity in early education, many experts say. Increasing access to preschool may be one of the keys to closing the achievement gap, they say, since about 90% of brain growth happens before kindergarten.

However, there are myriad opinions about how universal transitional kindergarten should be rolled out. While the state’s plan is to implement universal TK through the public school system, some advocates argue the program should also be available through preschools and child care centers in a mixed delivery model that would help bolster the struggling child care industry.

1. What is transitional kindergarten, or TK, and is it mandatory?

TK is a stepping-stone between preschool and kindergarten. Both TK and kindergarten are entirely optional. Children are only required to attend school in California once they turn 6. Until that age, it is up to parents to decide whether to enroll their children in preschool, transitional kindergarten, or other child care arrangements or keep them at home.

2. Is TK free? How is it paid for?

Children can attend TK at no cost because it is part of California’s K-12 public school system. Districts receive funding for TK students based on average daily attendance, which is the average number of students in attendance over the course of the school year.

3. Why was TK first introduced in California?

TK came about after the Legislature approved the Kindergarten Readiness Act in 2010. Until then, children who were 4 years old on Sept. 1 could still enroll in regular kindergarten as long as they turned 5 by Dec. 2 of that year. But the new law changed that. Beginning in 2012, children had to be 5 by Sept. 1 to enroll in kindergarten.

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That left out about 100,000 kids who had to wait an extra year. In response, transitional kindergarten was established in 2012 to serve those 4-year-olds who would previously have been eligible for kindergarten.

4. What is the difference between the current TK program and the new universal transitional kindergarten program?

Currently, TK serves about 100,000 children, primarily those who turn 5 between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2. These are the students who narrowly miss the cutoff for regular kindergarten. The new $2.7 billion universal TK program, by contrast, will gradually be made available to every 4-year-old in California, eventually serving nearly 400,000 students. It will essentially become California’s version of a universal preschool program, available to all children regardless of income.

5. How long will it take for universal transitional kindergarten to be fully rolled out?

It is expected to be rolled out beginning in the 2022-2023 school year, expanding annually until it is available to all the state’s 4-year-olds by 2025-2026. The plan is to gradually phase in younger students each year. However, some school districts are ahead of the curve, having already expanded TK to most 4-year-olds.

6. How large will the class sizes be?

Small class sizes are optimal to give young kids the attention they need. Individual instruction is a pillar of quality early education, experts say. The ratios for TK are expected to start out at 12 students to 1 teacher or teaching assistant and transition to 10 students to 1 teacher by the 2025-2026 school year. That is about half the size of many current TK classes, many of which rely on parent volunteers to help teachers. Many preschool settings enjoy an even smaller ratio. Head Start, for instance, generally keeps an 8-1 ratio in its preschool programs.

7. How will school districts pay for the new classrooms and facilities necessary to suit small children?

The state has earmarked about $490 million in the latest budget to build new facilities and make adjustments to existing ones, such as building out right-size water fountains and restrooms with pint-size potties and sinks.

8. What are the challenges facing this massive expansion of TK?

Staffing is one of the biggest hurdles ahead. There is already a teacher shortage in the state. California will need an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 new teachers and 16,000 new teaching assistants as transitional kindergarten expands, experts say.

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9. What will the credential requirements for TK teachers be?

Currently, TK teachers are required to have a multiple-subject teaching credential, the same credential teachers need for all the elementary grades. By 2023, TK teachers also will need to complete an additional 24 units of early childhood education coursework or the equivalent, as deemed by their employer, or they will need to hold a child-development permit.

10. What are the plans for recruiting and training new transitional kindergarten teachers?

The state has allocated $100 million in competitive grants to school districts for recruiting teachers and providing ongoing professional learning. The state is also looking at various options for making it easier to meet the credential requirements.

11. What will TK teachers get paid?

That is ultimately determined by districts, but typically, TK teachers are paid the same as kindergarten teachers. It should be noted that K-12 teachers generally earn about 38% more than preschool teachers and child care workers, according to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley. That wage disparity helps explain why 17% of the state’s early childhood educators live in poverty, experts say.

12. Is there a pathway for preschool teachers, a workforce that's predominately women of color, to move into TK careers?

The state’s Commission on Teacher Credentialing has developed a proposal that would create a pathway for preschool teacher permit holders to gain the preparation they need to teach TK without completing all the requirements for a multiple-subject teaching credential.

Right now, about 49% of early childhood teachers in child care centers have a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Child Care Employment.

13. Will TK be a full-day or a half-day program?

Universal TK, like kindergarten, is a local choice of full-day or part-day. However, the state’s new Expanded Learning Opportunities Program requires that local educational agencies offer a nine-hour school day including before- and after-class services.

14. Do children in universal TK have to meet the same vaccination requirements as in regular kindergarten?

Yes, the same vaccination criteria apply.

This article was originally published by EdSource.

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