CA announces a budget surplus — and legislators can’t wait to blow it.

It’s hardly surprising, but California’s we-never-met-a-big-budget-bill-we-didn’t-like Democratic lawmakers and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson have joined hands to sponsor SB 837, new legislation that would provide free public preschool to every four-year-old child in California.

The Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2014, introduced by Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) and co-sponsored by Torlakson and Early Edge California, will expand access to transitional kindergarten programs to all four year old children, no matter when their birthday. Currently, children with birthdays early in the year are excluded.

“It’s impossible to overstate how important these early years are to a child’s future success in school,” Torlakson said in a press release. “Transitional kindergarten—particularly a full-year, full-day program—can make all the difference, especially for families who may be struggling to give their young children these valuable learning opportunities.”

According to the proposal, 46,000 four-year-olds would be added each year for the first five years of the program, which will cost a total of $990 million by 2019-20.

This bill is an upgrade to SB 1381, which the legislature passed in 2010. 

California’s current transitional kindergarten program applies to 4-year-olds who turn 5 in October, November or December. That age group was affected by the 2010 bill, which requires children to turn 5 by Sept. 1, instead of Dec. 2, to attend kindergarten. The state began phasing in the program, one month a year, in 2012-13.

Needless to say, the California Teachers Association is on board with this (and any) bill that adds thousands of new dues-paying jobs to help replenish its sagging coffers. In fact, SB 837 would create 8,000 teaching positions for class sizes of 20 children or fewer.  (CTA president Dean Vogel was not very happy with the earlier bill because unlike SB 837, it let individual districts decide whether or not to offer TK.)

Interestingly, the people of CA already weighed in on the subject back in 2006 when over 60 percent of the voters resoundingly clobbered Prop. 82 – a tax-the-rich scheme proposed by actor/activist Rob (Meathead) Reiner – which would have enabled four year-olds across the state to attend taxpayer supported preschool. But the Sages of Sacto have turned a blind eye to the will of the people since then.

What do we really know about Transitional Kindergarten (TK)?

TK, Pre-K and Head Start are different names for programs that accomplish little more than adding unionized teaching and educational support jobs to the state’s payroll. Oh, sure, the sales pitch sounds great. As Steinberg says, “Expanding transitional kindergarten can be accomplished with just a fraction of increased Proposition 98 funds while saving billions of dollars in the long run by reducing the extra costs of special education, grade retention and juvenile crime.”

Steinberg’s cheerleading notwithstanding, early childhood education has never proven to have lasting results. Obviously, due to its newness, there are no longitudinal studies specifically for TK. But we sure know about Head Start, which would seem to be TK by another name. The results of the third and final phase of the federal government’s Head Start study were released in December 2012, and they matched those of the second phase of the study published in 2010. They revealed that basically the federal program has been a $180 billion (and counting) boondoggle. Lesli Maxwell in Education Week explains,

In the first phase of the evaluation, a group of children who entered Head Start at age 4 saw benefits from spending one year in the program, including learning vocabulary, letter-word recognition, spelling, color identification, and letter-naming, compared with children of the same age in a control group who didn’t attend Head Start. For children who entered Head Start at age 3, the gains were even greater, demonstrated by their language and literacy skills, as well their skills in learning math, prewriting, and perceptual motor skills.

The second phase of the study showed that those gains had faded considerably by the end of 1st grade, with Head Start children showing an edge only in learning vocabulary over their peers in the control group who had not participated in Head Start.

And now, in this final phase of the study, “there was little evidence of systematic differences in children’s elementary school experiences through 3rd grade, between children provided access to Head Start and their counterparts in the control group,” the researchers wrote in an executive summary. (Emphasis added.)

After the second phase results came out, Reason Foundation’s Lisa Snell blogged,

The just-released large-scale random assignment study of Head Start confirms once again that the $7 billion a year federal preschool program provides meager benefits to children at huge costs to taxpayers.

In other words, it’s a very expensive and wasteful federal babysitting program. The Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke elaborates:

… This federal evaluation, which effectively shows no lasting impact on children after first grade and no difference between those children who attended Head Start and those who did not, should call into question the merits of increasing funding for the program, which the Obama administration recently did as part of the so-called “stimulus” bill.

In a rare moment of candor, the mainstream media joined the naysayers, Time Magazine’s Joe Klein weighed in,

You take the million or so poorest 3- and 4-year-old children and give them a leg up on socialization and education by providing preschool for them; if it works, it saves money in the long run by producing fewer criminals and welfare recipients…it is now 45 years later. We spend more than $7 billion providing Head Start to nearly 1 million children each year. And finally there is indisputable evidence about the program’s effectiveness, provided by the Department of Health and Human Services: Head Start simply does not work.

So we may as well be flushing cash down the toilet. Perhaps that is what CA governor Jerry Brown was thinking when he announced his new budget last week. It seems that the quirky state leader has reservations about the financial outlay. Friday, he said that he has adjusted his initial budget proposals “to accommodate lawmakers on some of their priorities in recent years. But he made no mention in his presentation Thursday of a chief concern of legislative Democrats: transitional kindergarten.” When asked about the proposal, the governor said he would listen to proposals, but stressed that “wisdom and prudence is the order of the day.”

It’s outrageous that the taxpayers might have to fork over billions to satisfy the political agenda of the state legislature and their teacher union cronies. The Brookings Institution’s Grover J. Whitehurst sums it all up quite well, writing that childhood education,

… remains mired in philosophy, in broad theories of the nature of child development, and in practices that spring from appeals to authority and official pronouncements of professional guilds, rather than to research. Until the field of early education becomes evidence based, it will be doomed to cycles of fad and fancy. We need a science of early-childhood education, and we need it now.

Indeed, before spending another dime on any of this, we need fiscal discipline and solid research. Until then, we are at the mercy of what Stanford’s Caroline Hoxby refers to as the cardiac test. “We just know in our heart that this is right.”

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

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    One Response to Transitional Kindergarten: A Boondoggle by any other name….

    1. John_G says:

      My understanding is that Peoples Republik of Kalifornia has not actually realized a surplus of any kind yet, that they only anticipate $4 billion more in revenue because of Moonbeam’s latest tax increase — which will leave the state only $16 billion in the red as opposed to the traditional $20 billion deficit. Your politicians are morons. What are you guys going to do when your tax and spend policies finally push all industry out of state?

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