The kids in Mrs. Wilkins’ class at Dove Hill Elementary School in San Jose are preschool aged. But it’s not a preschool, or a kindergarten.
It’s transitional kindergarten, a free public school program in California that prepares older four year olds for kindergarten.
“So when they go into a classroom in kindergarten, they’ll already have confidence to take risks with their learning and try new things,” says transitional kindergarten teacher Tremayne Wilkins. “And they’ll have the endurance and I think the patience that they need.”
Right now transitional kindergarten is limited to kids who have fall birthdays and miss the age cut off for kindergarten. But a proposal making its way through Sacramento would expand transitional kindergarten to all four year olds.
At a press conference in January to announce the plan, bill author State Senator Darrell Steinberg (D- Sacramento) said, “There are few better uses of the taxpayer dollar than investing in evidenced-based change providing young people, four year olds, with the head start that they need.”
The backers of “TK for All,” as it’s often called, want to spend an estimated $1.46 billion to create a new grade.
“It’s a simple choice,” bill co-sponsor State Superintendent Tom Torlakson said in January. “Invest in kids now and reap the rewards of a better educated and more productive workforce and a healthier state. Or pay the price later with more high school dropouts and more young people dropping into trouble, gangs, drugs and jail.”
But TK for All is by no means a done deal. While politicians in Sacramento debate funding and merits of the program, educators are wrestling with how to expand public education to all four year olds.
“We just don’t believe this bill, as it’s currently written, is the best way to realize that goal,” says Wesley Smith, executive director of the Association of California School Administrators.
Smith says the school leaders who are members of his organization oppose the bill unless it’s amended.
“The classrooms are full,” Smith says. “So where are we going to put this new grade level? Are we going to bring in portables? There’s no facility bond in the budget, so how are we going to do that? How are we going to afford this?”
One idea is to enlist private preschools to provide public transitional kindergarten.
"We wonder if that’s even legal to, with public funds, fund private contracts for an entire grade span," Smith says. "We’re not just talking about programs here or there. We’re talking about an entire grade span."
Another concern is hiring. TK for All would require two adults in every classroom, which Smith says could be a deal breaker for cash-strapped districts still trying to dig out of the recession.
As for Mrs. Wilkins, she’s hedging her bets about the expansion of transitional kindergarten.
“If we open it up to all four year olds, I’m not sure what that program will look like and how it will translate to younger fours,” she says. “So I’m just kind of a little apprehensive just to see what the vision is.”
Wilkins likes the idea of public school for all four year olds, but she’s not convinced the current proposal is the way to go.
“I think having access to public education at any age is fantastic. Don’t get me wrong. I think that that’s wonderful,” she says. “But is it still transitional kindergarten? I’m not sure.”
Polls show a majority of California voters favor expanding public school to all four year olds. Some lawmakers support it, others do not. One voice missing in the debate over TK for All? Governor Jerry Brown. He has long been an education advocate but he’s been pretty much mum on the proposal to expand transitional kindergarten.