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Opportunities and Benefits of Universal Transitional Kindergarten

This summer, Governor Gavin Newsom made history when he signed legislation creating free, universal preschool for all 4-year-old children in California by expanding California’s Transitional Kindergarten (TK) program.

TK was developed ten years ago as the result of a decision to change the date for Kindergarten eligibility from children born before December 2nd to children born before September 2nd. This meant that children with fall birthdays who had previously been expected to enroll in Kindergarten were instead required to wait an additional year. In order to serve these children, California created TK, which until now has only been available to those children with fall birthdays (though some school districts have allowed children with later birthdays to enroll). 

As a first year of a two-year Kindergarten program, TK has the ability to implement model practices, including highly trained and qualified teachers who receive professional pay and benefits, guaranteed and dedicated funding through California’s Proposition 98, and a system that is free and available to all families, regardless of income. These benefits are one reason that the Master Plan for Early Learning and Care (MPELC), after nearly a year of research and evaluation, recommended that TK be expanded to serve all 4-year-olds as a way to provide preschool to all California children.

After nearly a decade, we know that TK works. Following TK implementation, the research organization American Institutes for Research® (AIR) evaluated the program, comparing TK students to similarly aged children who had not attended TK. The evaluation found that TK students were more prepared for Kindergarten on a variety of metrics, including early literacy, math skills, and executive functioning. There is reason to believe that the benefits last far beyond Kindergarten—middle school students who attended Oklahoma’s Pre-K program, which uses the same school-based model as TK, have higher math scores, are more likely to enroll in honors classes, and are less likely to be held back a grade than students who did not attend the Pre-K program. The benefits of TK may be especially impactful for children of color. According to the Getting Down to Facts II report, a large part of the achievement gap in academic success experienced by children of color in California would be erased by greater access to high-quality Pre-K programs, such as TK. 

California recognizes that 4-year-old children are very different from older kids and need a preschool experience that works for them. For that reason, the state budget provides the funds to require a maximum of 24 kids in each TK class, with a 12:1 student to adult ratio. The budget also funds an update of the Preschool Learning Standards, to create a developmentally appropriate, play-based curriculum that recognizes that young children learn best when they are active and free to explore and learn creatively. 

Parents appreciate the benefits that TK provides their children. Iesha, a parent in Los Angeles, shared that

When I put my first child into TK, I saw all the benefits it gave her. She was able to communicate better, she improved her handwriting–she was able to spell her first and last name with such great handwriting–and, it truly got her prepared for Kindergarten. It made her be number one in her class once she did start Kindergarten. That’s what made me want to put my second child into TK–to get that same experience.”

Next year, California may receive significant federal funding for Early Learning through President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Act. These funds would allow California to not only implement, but actually exceed, the goals of the MPELC. The Build Back Better Act would make it possible for California to provide free preschool to every 3- and 4-year-old, with TK being only one option in a strong, mixed-delivery system. At full implementation, parents would be able to choose from a variety of preschool options for their young children, including Head Start, California State Preschool Program, vouchers for child care centers and family child care, and TK as an option for 4-year-olds. TK will expand options for families while giving every child in California the opportunity to enter Kindergarten prepared to succeed.

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