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California Decided to Add a New Grade to Public Schools. How Is It Going?

Two young students sit at a classroom table, drawing on paper with markers

This post was originally published on June 12, 2023, in EdSource.

In 2021, California legislators approved a plan to provide universal prekindergarten to all 4-year-olds and income-eligible 3-years-olds in the state within five years, committing to provide universal PreK at a pace and scale unprecedented in the United States.

Most new funding for this initiative will go to transitional kindergarten—a free prekindergarten program available to all 4-year-olds regardless of family income, run by the public schools. Just looking at transitional kindergarten alone, schools are gearing up to serve about 300,000 4-year-olds by 2025-26. Serving this growing student population will require up to 16,000 additional lead teachers and 20,000 assistant teachers statewide. Schools will also need facilities that are up to state standards.

So, how is universal PreK planning and implementation going?

We find encouraging signs in our new report, “How Are California School Districts Planning for Universal Prekindergarten? Results From a 2022 Survey.” The report analyzes data from a California Department of Education survey conducted in the fall of 2022 that asked school districts and charter schools about their universal prekindergarten implementation plans. Most findings relate to transitional kindergarten—the preschool program all districts are required to implement.

Results indicate, promisingly, that 39% of school districts and charter schools plan to expand faster than expected, enrolling younger 4-year-olds sooner than required by the law. Additionally, 79% intend to offer full-day transitional kindergarten and provide options for after-school care. This is preferable to part-day arrangements because a longer preschool day is more beneficial for children’s outcomes as well as families’ schedules.

Importantly, all four of California’s largest school districts—Los Angeles Unified, San Diego Unified, Fresno Unified, and Long Beach Unified, which serve over 14% of the state’s students—will expand access to transition kindergarten both by offering full-day options and by admitting students at a younger age than required by the state plan.

While California’s universal PreK expansion is off to a good start, it will only live up to its promise if school districts implement these plans well, in a way that fosters developmentally appropriate, joyful learning.

School districts also reported plans to address the need for more qualified teachers. Their top strategies include forming partnerships with teacher preparation programs and offering financial assistance for teacher candidates. This is critical, as 80% of school districts and charters indicated they did not yet have enough qualified transitional kindergarten teachers to serve all 4-year-olds.

Facilities are also an area of need, with 27% of districts reporting that they require additional facility space to meet transitional kindergarten enrollment needs. Over half (53%) plan to upgrade their buildings for the younger children, and a number of these districts want funding and technical assistance as they make these changes.

More supports for English learners are also needed, especially in the 17% of school districts and charter schools that reported no plans to support language development despite having substantial populations of English learners. Fortunately, over 10% plan to implement dual-immersion programs, and most others plan to provide English classroom instruction geared toward English learners in addition to instruction intended to support learning in their home language.

While California’s universal PreK expansion is off to a good start, it will only live up to its promise if school districts implement these plans well, in a way that fosters developmentally appropriate, joyful learning. Successes in states such as Michigan, West Virginia, Washington and North Carolina, show that universal prekindergarten can be rolled out rapidly at scale and with quality. There’s no single recipe for success, but promising practices include:

  • Prioritizing high-quality standards, curriculum and assessments that foster developmentally appropriate, rich learning for all children. For many districts, this may lead to less time in whole-group instruction and more time in learning centers and child-initiated activities. California has a strong start with the Preschool Learning Foundations, the state’s early learning standards, and a revised version is coming soon. The state is also working to update its child assessment, the DRDP, which is required in state preschool and free for TK educators.
  • Investing in staff training, including increasing accessibility of preparation programs with rich clinical experiences and coursework in child development, and providing professional development such as coaching. Many county offices and districts are using their Early Educator Teacher Development grants to build the educator workforce. Offering high-quality professional development led by individuals with early learning expertise is a key next step.
  • Aligning early childhood and elementary programs by developing coherent curriculums across grades. Part of this work will require adequately preparing school leaders to support effective early education. The 21st Century School Leadership Academy is providing free training for school leaders, and Sacramento and Fresno counties are planning principal institutes. Districts can also offer professional development that allows state preschool and TK teachers to learn from one another, building continuity across programs serving young learners.

To serve all children, California will also need to continue investing in other early childhood programs, including the California State Preschool Program, Head Start, and child care. School districts have much to learn from these programs that have been serving children and families in their communities for years. For example, districts can engage with their communities by participating in working groups funded in each county by the Universal Prekindergarten Mixed Delivery Planning Grant. Additionally, local planning councils and child care resource and referral agencies will be key partners in ensuring that all children within district boundaries have access to early care and education that meets their needs.

Due largely to uneven learning opportunities, we see large disparities in outcomes by race and class before children even start kindergarten. High-quality early education is critical for setting children up for success, with long-term benefits such as greater educational attainment, higher earnings, and lower poverty and incarceration rates. Transitional kindergarten, specifically, appears to support kindergarten readiness, especially for English learners, with effects that are apparent through the elementary grades.

The state’s commitment to invest in universal prekindergarten is necessary and worthwhile. If implemented well, California’s investments could greatly benefit all of California’s 1.4 million preschool-age children for many years to come.