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Universal transitional kindergarten, the landmark $2.7 billion initiative Gavin Newsom signed into law in 2021, has some problems. Not only is it beginning to push the already beleaguered childcare industry to a breaking point, but some feel its rollout at San Diego Unified hasn’t been ideal.
Shana Hazan, candidate for SDUSD’s sub-district B board seat said as much at Politifest. She worries the district rushed the implementation of UTK, and that some of the curriculum may not be ideal for the age group of the four-year-old children for whom it was designed. That’s why she’s chosen not to enroll her own UTK-aged daughter at the public school her elder daughter attends. Hazan believes the program is a positive development and that SDUSD will eventually get it right, but that “it’s just not there yet.”
During Politifest’s “What Role Should Government Play in Providing Childcare?” panel, Kim McDougall, YMCA’s VP of services also questioned whether four-year-old’s should be taught using kindergarten curriculum that’s essentially retrofitted for younger children, what’s known as a push-down system.
“Is that what’s developmentally appropriate for those little guys that are still potty training and taking naps and, and that kind of thing? “ McDougall asked. “(UTK’s) been, you know, not gorgeous in how it’s kind of been built and developed a push down, but, in concept, yes … what we want and need is more public funding coming into this space. It needs to be used in a way that honors the existing delivery system for early care and education rather than pushed through the (local education agency) system.”
But implementation isn’t the only issue associated with UTK, as McDougall pointed out:
“TK can, at this point, only be offered on a school campus. And what that means is it’s often not offered at a full day, which is a nine-hour day that a working parent needs. It’s offered part day. And then those aftercare providers that are traditionally there to support the rest of the day’s care, they’re already impacted and there’s a wait list and families can’t get in … For a working family, it’s not a solution, it’s not a true childcare solution, which we know kiddos need.”
One of the most worrying side effects of the rollout of UTK statewide is its impact on traditional private childcare providers. “Our childcare system for many years before COVID has been struggling to stay afloat and available to families,” McDougall said. Some parents are stuck paying up to 30 percent of their income on childcare, leaving providers – many of whom make minimum wage, or less than minimum wage when extra hours worked are factored in – feeling like they’re unable to charge more. Those low wages in turn make the industry unappealing to many workers.
The UTK program has also cannibalized the most profitable age-group of kids for that private childcare industry, as the panel’s moderator, KPBS’ Claire Trageser explained:
“Because of licensing requirements and the number of kids per teacher, you can have a lot of providers make money on the older kids because you can have more four year old’s per teacher and lose money on the infants because you have fewer infants per teacher. So then if you take out all of the money making four year old’s, that sounds weird, but you know what I mean, then … all of a sudden either your business is broken or you’re having to charge way more for infant care.”
Laura Kohn, senior director of Mission Driven Finance had an even more dire prognosis:
“In my opinion, I think universal TK is breaking the childcare sector. It was already fragile and now the childcare providers … are losing their four year old’s. So that’s, you know, 20% of the kids that were attending their childcares, really more because … infants and toddlers are so expensive to serve … I think it’s really gonna be terrible. I think we’re gonna lose a lot of providers … I think the loss of providers business viability is going to accelerate over the next year or two. And if you talk to, and we all do talk to providers, they’re losing kiddos, right and left and … they’re scared. They’re scared for the viability of their business. So … what I said to a legislator earlier this week was the legislature needs to go back in session and acknowledge that you broke the childcare system with this cool sounding universal TK plan of yours, and you need to come in and fix it now, because otherwise working parents are screwed.”
For McDougall, the early experience is discouraging because of how positive such the investment could be:
“It’s a bummer because it was a very, very large investment of, of $2 billion and it’s now going to be hard for families to access and use it … We have a long way to go and really having our legislators understand the complexity of the childcare system and the critical role that it plays in being that first educator and 90 percent of your brain is developed before the age of five. So if we’re putting all this public investment into K-12 and all the brain development is happening in zero to five … it makes zero logical sense.”