"Children Learning, Parents Earning, Communities Growing"
September 13, 2021 | Issue #37
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CCRC's Response to Universal Transitional Kindergarten 

by Michael Olenick, Ph.D., President & CEO with research by Aja Goare

For more than a century, California has supported an early care system with small incremental changes while leaving much of the system to the marketplace. Plans laid by the governor to implement a Universal Transitional Kindergarten statewide by 2025 have been similarly imposed in other states, resulting in decreased child care options and diminished rates for child care providers. There’s no question that wider access to early care and education for young children has a positive effect on future outcomes, but how these programs are implemented by state leadership will either bolster a fragile early care system or destroy it.

Currently, Universal Transitional Kindergarten (or otherwise referred to as Universal Preschool) is offered in Vermont and Florida, while nearly universal TK is effective in seven other states. In assessing the function of the programs in each state, where program implementation varies, several concerning trends emerged.

Quality Wanes
The quality of early care has been of concern since 1941, when the U.S. government imposed the Lanham Act to support states in providing high-quality child care programs to mothers who worked in the production of war materials. When World War II ended, most states ceased support for these programs but California continued through school district Children’s Centers.
Since then, many other states have taken steps that recognize the value of child care and early learning. However, in parts of the country where UTK is state-funded, many benchmarks established by the National Institute for Early Education Research are not met. According to the report, there are more than four times as many children served in programs meeting fewer than half of the benchmarks than in programs meeting 9 or 10 benchmarks. Those benchmarks include critical factors like the Continuous Quality Improvement System, Comprehensive Early Learning and Development Standards, higher education for classroom teachers and staff-child ratio.

“Well-funded full-day programs with high standards for all children at age 4 — much less ages 3 and 4 — remain a distant dream,” the report states.

The impacts to quality are largely due to the gap in funding required to successfully educate and care for the number of enrolled children. “Where Luxembourg (Germany) spends $16,000 annually per child, state-funded preschools in the U.S. at the time of publication averaged only $4,143 per student,” a report by Rasmussen University notes.

Head Start, which was created in 1965 to provide a preschool experience to very low income children, came with quality and training standards for teachers. Research that followed children through adulthood showed the investment in Head Start paid off at least eight times. While Head Start teachers are typically required to perform more observations and assessments to maintain their high-quality standards, public preschool teachers don’t currently face the same rigorous requirements.

Lack of Choice for Families
The alternative payment program established by CA Gov. Jerry Brown in 1978 aimed to maximize the number of low income children enrolled by creating a payment system to incorporate community-based programs. How to define quality was left to parents to decide. That sentiment was echoed by Pres. Bill Clinton with the late 1990s welfare reform, which identified child care as essential to the ability of parents to work. A voucher system allowed parents to choose care that would support their participation in work and/or school.

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