More preschool than California can afford


Preschool can do wonderful things for disadvantaged children — get them used to how a classroom works, give them play time with others and help them build crucial developmental skills, such as vocabulary, simply by exposing them to more books and spoken language. Though the research results on preschool are limited and mixed, this much is clear: Children who have attended it start kindergarten much better prepared.

But rather than embark on a billion-dollar-a-year “transitional kindergarten” program, as proposed by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), California would be better off raising the quality and reach of its existing, far less costly subsidized preschool program.

SB 837 would create a new program — universal transitional kindergarten — for all 4-year-olds, regardless of their family finances. Despite the state’s improved budget outlook, though, it cannot afford an expensive new entitlement at the moment.


The bill would add a 14th year to the current K-12 system. A credentialed teacher and instructional aide would oversee each class of 20 students. Attendance would be voluntary.

Some careful thought has gone into the bill. Transitional kindergarten would be phased in over five years, to avoid a sudden shortage of qualified teachers and classroom space. The money would be paid as per-student funding to school districts, which would have the option of contracting with private preschool operators to provide the instruction, as long as the other requirements are met.

But by making it mandatory that all districts offer transitional kindergarten, and by requiring the program to be staffed with credentialed teachers, the bill would dramatically increase costs, and it would embed them into the schools’ Proposition 98 funding guarantee, further limiting legislators’ ability to balance the budget and fund other worthy programs. Schools would be paid at least 50% more per student than is now paid for state-subsidized preschool, and even more for every low-income student. Nor would the budget of the state’s existing preschool program be reduced; it would morph into wraparound child care. The bill would also increase the membership rolls of the California Teachers Assn., as well as future retirement costs, even though the state has not figured out how to pay its existing pension obligations. The fact that the program would cover all students, poor and wealthy alike, also raises the cost of the program.

Steinberg and other preschool advocates make a valid point that California falls far short of its obligation to provide worthwhile preschool for the children who most need it. The existing state preschool program is uneven in quality, its requirements for teachers are too low, and there aren’t enough seats for all the children who should qualify. It will take money to remedy this situation — but not nearly as much as universal transitional kindergarten would.