An unexpected windfall for California's education coffers has Senate Democrats pushing to dramatically expand the existing transitional kindergarten program to all 4-year-olds.
Currently, transitional kindergarten is available only to those children who turn 5 between Oct. 2 and Dec. 2. In 2014-15, the program is to expand to include those who turn 5 between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2.
That's not enough, according to Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, who along with State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, announced plans to phase in an expansion of the existing early-kindergarten program to all 4-year-olds.
The expansion would roll out over five years, beginning in 2015-16.
Currently, approximately 120,000 children statewide are eligible for transitional kindergarten because of their birth dates. The expanded program would allow an additional 350,000 access to essentially two years of kindergarten.
"We think the research is very clear that preschool and pre-kindergarten education is invaluable to student success," said Mark Hedlund, spokesman for Steinberg.
"This is not really a new program as it is an expansion to the existing program to go full bore," he said.
"Existing transitional kindergarten only serves about 25 percent of the kids who otherwise would be eligible," he said. "The idea is to fill those gaps and have it provided to all 4-year-olds."
While some local educators expressed enthusiasm for the new plan, others said the formula has had issues in its 18 months of existence.
"One of the biggest issues is that TK never made any sense from the start," said Petaluma Superintendent Steve Bolman. "You were really creating outliers -#8212; you were providing a 14th year of education to your oldest kids. This (new plan) makes more sense than that, but (where is the) the wherewithal to pay for it when we are not spending on K-12 adequately?"
Bolman, who said research clearly shows preschool is a key component to student success, especially for students from poor families or where English is a second language, wondered whether the state K-12 system is the right home for the program.
"The research right now says that probably the most important thing we can provide to students, especially students with needs, is a preschool program," Bolman said. "Bringing it into the K-12 system, I think it's an expensive way to provide the service. Credentialed teachers are more expensive than preschool teachers."
The Senate Democrats' plan would fund the hiring of approximately 8,000 additional teachers to staff the program. The plan calls for one credentialed teacher and one qualified "associate teacher" per 20 students.
The proposal also allows for school districts and charter schools to contract with private providers who meet quality standards.
The expanded program would cost nearly $1 billion annually when fully implemented in 2020, according to estimates.
A recent report from the Legislative Analyst's Office declared there could be more than $7.7 billion in additional funding generated for schools in the upcoming fiscal year which begins July 1.
When the current transitional kindergarten was launched, there were dramatic differences in estimates of how much the program would cost.
The Legislative Analyst's Office has not been able to analyze the expense of the current transitional kindergarten because the state did not delineate between transitional and traditional kindergartners in the inaugural year of the program.