Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, has introduced a bill to expand California’s Transitional Kindergarten program to give every four-year-old the opportunity to attend a year of school before kindergarten.

The TK program began in 2012 for children who turned five during the first three months of the school year, and were deemed too young for traditional kindergarten. Currently only one in every four preschool age children is eligible for TK, and only half of California’s low-income children are served in Head Start or State Preschool.

Steinberg’s Kindergarten Readiness Act (SB 837) aims to reduce this gap in early education. SB 837 would provide universal access to TK, expanding the program to serve approximately 470,000 children, up from the current 120,000.

The developmentally appropriate TK curriculum differs from kindergarten, but is aligned with kindergarten standards. Transitional kindergarten is taught by credentialed teachers and helps young children grow socially and physically, and develops language arts readiness, number sense, and problem-solving skills. TK is voluntary, the same as kindergarten.

Steinberg, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, and other state leaders recognize the importance of investing in early learning and believe the cost of SB 837, roughly $198 million annually, is worth the investment.

The expanded program would be funded by new monies generated by Proposition 30. It would begin in the 2015-16 school year and accommodate all eligible students by 2019-20.

Studies show that children attending high-quality preschool programs perform better throughout their school years and graduate high school at a higher rate than their peers. This is especially true for low-income students.

Research has shown that for every $1 invested in early education, society saves $7 from reduced grade retention, higher lifetime earnings and especially lower crime rates. A recent study by Fight Crime Invest in Kids shows that high-quality transitional kindergarten ultimately reduces the state prison population by 13,000 inmates, resulting in a savings of more than $1 billion per year.

— By Mindy Pines, CFT Reporter