Free universal transitional kindergarten for 4-year-olds was passed by the California State Legislature and signed into law by Governor Newsom last year in 2021. What seemed to be a win for working families who struggle to find childcare for their pre-kindergarten children, was a detriment to childcare facilities across the state – and we are now seeing the impact.
According to Assemblymember Kevin McCarty’s office, universal, government-run, transitional kindergarten will be fully implemented by 2025-26 and is expected to serve 300,000 children. Assemblyman McCarty and a coalition of bipartisan Assemblymembers and State Senators crafted the $2.7 billion initiative as a part of an education budget trailer bill last year.
There are over 10,000 operating child care centers throughout California that, for many, have been operating in this state for years. Many anticipated the negative impact universal transitional kindergarten would have on their business and lobbied for a mixed-delivery system: a system that allows childcare centers to continue to operate and educate the children currently under their care for free through slots of state funding intended for universal transitional kindergarten. Transitional kindergarten could be contracted out to these childcare centers.
Essentially, each school district would identify the childcare centers district serving 4-year-olds and cut them a check for each child. Rather than building a completely new structure in school districts for transitional kindergarten, they could partner with and utilize the already well-structured childcare centers that have been operating and working with the community’s children for decades. This would prevent childcare centers from losing business and potentially closing down and would give school districts more time to establish their transitional kindergarten programs before the influx of children in the 2025-26 school year.
Unfortunately, supporting a privatized educational approach is not California’s style. Assemblyman McCarty, the leader of the universal transitional kindergarten initiative, disagreed with a mixed-delivery system approach from the start.
“We don’t contract out eighth grade and fifth grade and third grade, so I don’t know how we’re going to contract out a grade,” Assemblyman McCarty said back in 2021. “There are plenty of 3-year-olds that are going to need service. So, we’re telling these programs, ‘Hey, you can serve 3-year-olds.’”
Fast forward one year later after the initiative’s proponents refused to give childcare centers a spot at the negotiating table, and we are already seeing the impact.
Childcare centers largely operate and make their money from providing care for 4 year-olds. In the state of California, for every four children under the age of two, one adult is required to be present. However, for every 12 children over the age of two, one adult is required to be present. In the midst of a teacher shortage, childcare centers heavily rely on the 4-year-olds in their care centers to bring in the income to continue operations.
With school districts scrambling to start a program for 4-year-olds from nothing that is fully operational by the 2025-26 school year, they look to one industry – childcare centers. Employees in childcare centers are leaving in droves, attracted by the better pay school districts can offer.
Sarah Soriano, a Long Beach childcare center director who has already lost two employees to California’s expanding pre-K program said it best, “The school districts are going to start — I jokingly call it — raiding our programs.”
School districts are not only raiding their programs but offering something through state funding that childcare cannot – free childcare. Working families who are already paying thousands of dollars per year for childcare will surely flock to the public option, leaving private childcare centers empty.
Unfortunately, all of this could have been avoided if leadership in California weren’t so quick to demonize private educational options. However, this could contribute to the already turning tide for many parents skeptical of the effectiveness of public education in California and who are already turning to homeschool and private education options.
Why would Sacramento politicians insist on government-run transitional kindergarten for four-year-olds? Most likely it is because public school TK teachers would be unionized, and, not surprisingly, the state and local teachers’ unions are the most powerful players in education policy in California.
Pamela Casas, a Carlsbad mom, recognizes her choice as a parent to decide if the public option would be better than the one-on-one attention her 4-year-old is currently receiving in a childcare program. “In that aspect I’d consider staying where I am at now,” she said. “[…] even though there’s a cost benefit analysis, is it still the right choice?”
Emily Humpal is deputy communications director at the Pacific Research Institute.