Conscripting Four-Year Olds: California’s Latest Preschool Plan

From House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to President Obama, Washington politicians are scrambling to get their hands on other people’s toddlers. But they’re not alone.

Back in 2010 California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law the Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2010. Basically, every year since 2012-13 children must celebrate their fifth birthday sooner and sooner in the year to be eligible for kindergarten. Rather than make a lot of almost five-year-olds wait to start kindergarten, California simply added an entire additional year of formal schooling called “transitional kindergarten.”

Fast forward to 2012, and Gov. Jerry Brown was having second thoughts about the staggering cost of government child care and preschool. The state’s General Child Care program, which included a California State Preschool Component, was set to be converted to a voucher program (p. 1) administered by county welfare departments, similar to several other voucherized programs.

Meanwhile, transitional kindergarten, which was estimated to cost more than $2 billion over its three-year life span once fully implemented (p. 3, $675 million annually), was slated for “non initiation” (or “elimination” in plain English). The Legislative Analyst’s Office supported that idea because it made no sense to offer an additional year of schooling to a select group of four-year-olds “based on their birth month rather than their academic or financial needs”—especially since districts could allow four-year-olds to attend kindergarten on a voluntary,  case-by-case basis (p. 3, and here).

The 2012-13 state budget ultimately passed with transitional kindergarten funding intact, largely because the projected savings were lower than anticipated, less than $100 million compared to $224 million  (see here, here, here, here, p. 4, here, and here, p. 15).

With the three-year expiration date looming, California Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg introduced another “transitional kindergarten” bill last week. The Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2014 would require any school district or charter school that offers kindergarten to also offer transitional kindergarten for all four-year-olds.

To date there’s no readily available evidence that the transitional kindergarten program has improved student learning. In fact, one of the only public evaluations I could find was conducted by the American Institutes for Research. It couldn’t even pinpoint how many children actually enrolled in transitional kindergarten because districts weren’t required to report TK enrollments separately from kindergarten enrollments. (p. 3). AIR researchers estimated that some 70 percent of California districts enrolled TK students—although available enrollment rates varied significantly by district.

But if history teaches us anything it’s that the only certain outcome from more government schooling is soaring costs—not student achievement.

The Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2014 is intended to:

…Make early childhood education in California a rational and efficient system so that all of California’s four-year-old children have access to a voluntary, high-quality transitional kindergarten program one year before enrolling in kindergarten. …More strategically use existing state and federal funds to provide full-day, developmentally appropriate services for four-year-old children from low-income families, and provide high-quality early learning and care to those children who need it the most.

Even if transitional kindergarten were a model of rational efficiency, the following year children would matriculate into a system that could best be described as a portrait of dysfunction.

A few years back, a national team of experts led by Stanford University education researchers concluded that the current K-12 schooling system in California is highly centralized and crippled by “regulationistis”  (pp. 15 and 35). School spending is inequitable, complex, irrational, and imposes costly administrative burdens on schools (p. 35). The finance system is so bad, in fact, the research team concluded that “absent reform, directing more money into the current system is unlikely to result in the dramatic improvements in student achievement needed to reach state goals” (p. 2). One such reform is empowering school principals to fire bad teachers—which principals said was even more important than money in helping raise student achievement (p. 20). Unfortunately, efforts to accomplish this goal have been stymied by powerful special interest groups, including the state’s largest teachers union, the California Teachers Association.

However well-intentioned elected officials may be, much of the “research” they cite about preschool returns on investment, boosting graduation rates, and slashing incarceration rates is deeply flawed.

Decades’ worth of scientific evidence also shows that government-run preschool does not prime the student learning pump. On the contrary, it shows that any preschool gains begin fading out as early as first grade, and virtually dissipate by third grade—and those findings come from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the country’s largest and longest-running government managed preschool program, Head Start.

Once a $96.4 million targeted government program for about a half million students, Head Start is now a nearly $8 billion program with 964,000 enrollees. This means the program originally cost around $172 per Head Start recipient, but today it costs about $7,839—45 times more expensive.

According to the two latest Head Start evaluations by HHS, impacts faded out as early as the end of first grade, and others dissipated by the end of third grade. In January 2010, for example, HHS concluded:

Access to Head Start did not appear to have an overall impact on the schools that children attended in kindergarten and 1st grade or on their early elementary education experiences.  With only a few exceptions, teacher, classroom, and school characteristics did not differ significantly between children in the program group and those in the control group.  (here, p. 3-51 and 9-3)


Despite the early, positive, cognitive effects… This pattern of limited cognitive impacts in the school years may suggest that the magnitude of the initial cognitive impacts may not have been sufficiently potent for the early gains Head Start children made to be sustained as they developed and moved into the elementary school years.  (here, p. 9-4)

The findings from last October 2012 were no better:

In summary, there were initial positive impacts from having access to Head Start, but by the end of 3rdgrade there were very few impacts found for either cohort in any of the four domains of cognitive, social- emotional, health and parenting practices. The few impacts that were found did not show a clear pattern of favorable or unfavorable impacts for children. (here, p. xvii)

In terms of cognitive impacts HHS found:

The Head Start Impact Study  found  impacts  for the sample as a whole at the end of one year of  Head Start on a broad range of early language and literacy outcomes for children in both the 3- and 4-year -old cohorts, with impacts on math skills for children in the 3-year -old cohort. However, these early effects rapidly dissipated in elementary school, with only a single impact remaining at the end of 3rdgrade for children in each age cohort. The data indicated that the initial Head Start benefits are quickly “made up” by children in the non-Head Start group. (here, p. 92)


There is clear evidence that Head Start had an impact on children’s language and literacy development while children were in Head Start. These effects, albeit modest in magnitude, were found for both age cohorts during their first year of admission to the Head Start program. However, these early effects were no longer evident in elementary school, with only a single impact remaining at the end of 3rd grade for children in each age cohort:  a favorable impact for the 4- year -old cohort (ECLS-K Reading) and an unfavorable impact for the 3- year -old cohort (grade promotion). The scores of the Head Start and control group children remained lower than the norm for the population. (here, p. 147)


At the end of 3 rd   grade, there was suggestive evidence of an unfavorable impact—the parents of the Head Start group children reported a significantly lower child grade promotion rate than the parents of the non – Head Start group children. (here, p. xxii)

For now, California’s transitional kindergarten plan is voluntary for parents. It also directs schools to allow, “to the greatest extent possible, a parent of an eligible child to choose the transitional kindergarten that the eligible child attends.”

But let’s be real. With the prospect of an additional year’s worth of per-student funding, the temptation for school districts (and their taxpayer-funded lobbyists) to push for making transitional kindergarten enrollment mandatory will be virtually impossible to resist. And the last thing California parents or schools need for student success is another government mandate.

Gov. Brown was right to try and keep early government schooling optional for parents and mandate- free for schools. Now that California’s budget outlook has improved (at least on paper), this bill is as close to a sure thing as it gets.

Yet it’s worth remembering that such targeted programs for needy students have a funny way of becoming expensive universal mandates—whether parents and taxpayers want them or not.

Vicki E, Alger is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Senior Fellow and Director of the Women for School Choice Project at the Independent Women’s Forum. She is the author of the Independent book, Failure: The Federal Misedukation of America’s Children.
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