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Want a year of free preschool in California? Have a fall birthday

Jack Plow, age 4, shares his pretzels with a classmate in Laura Smith’s transitional kindergarten classroom at Lakewood Elementary School in Sunnyvale, Calif.
Jack Plow, age 4, shares his pretzels with a classmate in Laura Smith’s transitional kindergarten classroom at Lakewood Elementary School in Sunnyvale, Calif. The Hechinger Report

What if you were told that your child didn’t qualify for a spot in second grade because he didn’t have freckles? Ridiculous, right? But there’s a law on the books in California that is exactly this arbitrary.

Aspen Erickson, 5, is a kindergartener at Lakewood Elementary School in Sunnyvale, a city in California’s Silicon Valley and home to Internet search giant Yahoo. On a recent fall day, Aspen wore a bright yellow barrette to hold back her curls and a pair of hot pink leggings, the better for running in her school’s second annual Walkathon. This is Aspen’s first year attending public school and her first Walkathon.

But several of Aspen’s classmates, busy ignoring the “walk” part of the event’s title and full-out running their laps around the school’s play yard, already have one Walkathon and a full year of public school under their belts. Those children qualified for a relatively new California program called “transitional kindergarten,” a free, preschool-like year of public education open to any child in California with a birthday in September, October or November.

Aspen’s birthday is in August.

“I thought it was unfair that my friends got free pre-K (for their children) and I didn’t even get a workbook,” said Aspen’s mother, Deborah Erickson, as she watched her daughter’s progress around the field.

When transitional kindergarten was first introduced in schools in 2012, it was described as merely an extension of kindergarten, a “prequel,” if you will. California had previously decided to change the eligibility guidelines for entering kindergarten. The new rules called for children to have turned 5 before Sept. 1 of the year they started kindergarten.

(Previously, the deadline had been Dec. 1, one of the latest in the country. Five states, Connecticut, New Jersey, Kentucky, Colorado and Maine, currently have post-September deadlines that run from Oct. 1 to Jan. 1. Vermont and a handful of other states leave the exact deadline to the determination of local districts.)

I thought it was unfair that my friends got free pre-K (for their children) and I didn’t even get a workbook.

Deborah Erickson, whose daughter had the wrong month of birth

The change, urged by kindergarten teachers across the state, was a way to address the increasingly academic nature of kindergarten and the developmental maturity it required as well as an attempt to conform with other states. The change was to be implemented slowly, rolling the eligibility deadline back one month at a time until the 2014-15 school year, when it would hit Sept. 1 and stay there.

But there were two problems.

First, politicians worried that the parents of all the kids who were going to turn 5 in November of that first year would be angry about not getting to enroll them in kindergarten.

Second, the slow roll-out would create a smaller than usual kindergarten class for three years. That meant the state, which would be educating fewer children in kindergarten for those years, would save $700 million. “The reason that was a problem is that everyone had an opinion about who ought to be the beneficiary of that savings,” former state Sen. Joe Simitian, a Democrat and the law’s champion, said in a 2014 interview.

To solve both problems at once, legislators created transitional kindergarten. The kids who were no longer eligible for regular kindergarten – those with fall birthdays – would have a place to go, and the state wouldn’t have to decide how to reassign the funds. They could just spend them on the children for whom they were originally earmarked.

What does any of this have to do with freckles? There is no end date for the transitional kindergarten program written into the law. Here’s what it says under Education Code 48000(c)(3): “(I)n the 2014-15 school year and each school year thereafter, a child who has his or her fifth birthday between September 2 and December 2 of the school year shall be admitted to a transitional kindergarten program maintained by the school district.”

Twenty-five percent of children, kids born between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2, are entitled to 14 years of free, taxpayer-funded education in California. Everyone else gets 13.

That means that 25 percent of children, kids born between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2, are entitled to 14 years of free, taxpayer-funded education in California. Everyone else gets 13.

Transitional kindergarten is not targeted to children who have special education requirements, developmental delays, challenging home lives, a home language other than English, or any other factor that might provide an educational justification for an extra year of school. And, ironically, the kids with fall birthdays, who used to be the youngest in any given kindergarten classroom (remember, they hadn’t even turned 5 by the first day of school) are now the oldest. A kid born on Sept. 10 would now be one of the first in his kindergarten class to turn 6.

So now the kids who are the furthest along developmentally on Day One of kindergarten could also arrive having completed an extra year of public school education.

“What is shocking to me is how little the discriminatory nature of this program has been discussed,” Seth Rosenblatt, a San Carlos School District board member, wrote recently in a commentary for California’s EdSource Today. “I recognize it is far from certain that a court would agree that the transitional kindergarten law amounts to illegal discrimination. However, state legislators could act now to require and fund a universal preschool program that would just be . . . open to all children.”

Rosenblatt is not the first to have that idea. In 2014, then-Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat, tried to make transitional kindergarten universal. It would have cost about $990 million a year once it was fully universal, according to Steinberg’s original estimates. While Gov. Jerry Brown, also a Democrat, didn’t go on record against his party’s lead state legislator, he never expressed public support for the idea, either. It failed.

I was going to put him back in preschool, but why should I do that when we have a credentialed teacher who will work with him for an extra year? And, it’s free!

Karin Plow, whose son has an October birthday

And so the state is left with a program that provides a year of what is effectively free public preschool – taught by certified teachers with master’s degrees in elementary education, a significantly higher bar than is required for most preschool teachers – to just one-quarter of the state’s children. The benefit of that setup was not lost on Karin Plow, the mother of Jack, a transitional kindergartner at Lakewood who turned 5 in October.

“I was going to put him back in preschool,” said Plow, who has taught elementary school, “but why should I do that when we have a credentialed teacher who will work with him for an extra year? And, it’s free!”

Full-day private preschool in the Bay Area can cost more than $20,000 a year, an amount that is no joking matter for Plow, who works for the Sunnyvale school district and her husband, who is in sales. Like Erickson, Plow spent the morning of the Walkathon at the school helping supervise the activities. After she and the other parents had left, Jack and his classmates followed their teacher, Laura Smith, back to the classroom.

Transitional kindergarten is meant to be a bridge between 3-year-old preschool and kindergarten. It looks a lot like any high-quality 4-year-old preschool program. There are dress-up clothes, blocks and other toys – like a very tempting bucket of miniature cars in Jack’s classroom – and there are walls plastered with the ABC’s and 1-2-3’s. Students spend their time in a mix of free play and group learning. Jack and his classmates went through the whole alphabet one letter at a time by matching each letter with an animal, a sound and a movement. There’s snack time, recess, art and basic math – think stacking blocks in ascending amounts, not addition worksheets. Essentially, it looks like kindergarten used to look before reading by the end of the year became a requirement.

Officially, transitional kindergarten teachers base their lessons on California’s preschool learning standards, which include both social-emotional and academic targets that range from demonstrating an ability to cooperate to counting 10 objects accurately. Smith, who taught kindergarten for nine years before taking over a standalone transitional kindergarten classroom this fall, loves the new grade.

“It just makes sense,” she said. “They’ll be ready and understand school and what’s expected of them. They’ll hit the ground running and just go.”

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more of our reporting on early education and California education.

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