San Diego Unified Trustee Richard Barrera / File photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

California’s universal transitional kindergarten program rollout, which will bring free transitional kindergarten to all 4-year-olds in the state by 2025, and which San Diego Unified rolled out early, has had a devastating effect on the private childcare industry.  

Because state licensing requirements allow private childcare providers to care for significantly more 4-year-olds per teacher than younger children, 4-year-olds are the most profitable demographic for those providers. Some even take a loss when providing care for younger kids and make it up with older kids. And it’s exactly that demographic that UTK has hoovered up. 

KPBS recently reported that a San Diego County YMCA survey found “85 percent of childcare businesses have seen a reduction in enrollments of 4-year-old children and 76 percent have lost children to a TK program.”  

San Diego Unified board member Richard Barrera thinks there’s a solution for the weakened private childcare system – get rid of it altogether. 

“We can’t, as a society, look to protect a system (where) 3 and 4-year-olds are sort of a cash cow,” Barrera said. “I would hope that the goal eventually is to continue to move the public school system down to younger and younger groups of students.” 

Barrera thinks even describing the private childcare system as a system is inaccurate. To him, it’s a broken patchwork that doesn’t meet the needs of parents or workers in the childcare industry.  

“The move toward universal early childhood education is designed to replace a bad system with a good system,” Barrera said. 

The private childcare system has long struggled from a tricky dichotomy, pulled between the cost for parents and the wages of teachers. Childcare is already unaffordable for many families, while at the same time workers in the industry are underpaid. 

A kindergarten classroom at Sherman Elementary in 2016. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Barrera said a significantly expanded early education program would take care of both problems – it would be free and accessible to parents, and workers would get better paying jobs with better benefits. Encouraging the development of a pipeline of educators working in early childcare to receive the certifications required to work in TK classrooms would be vital for building up the workforce, Barrera said.  

“For people who really care about kids and devote themselves to kids, but are underpaid, don’t have benefits, don’t have any security in their employment, for them to be able to be on a path, toward working in the school district, I think would be a great approach,” Barrera said. 

San Diego Unified already has a school that has implemented the “cradle to career” model Barrera would like to see rolled out districtwide in the recently rebuilt Logan Memorial Education Campus, which provides care from preschool to high school. 

It’s an idealistic vision. But any dream of a districtwide, let alone statewide, rollout of Logan Memorial-style campuses would be a herculean task, said Rita Palet, executive director of early education programs and services at the San Diego County Office of Education. An expansion of that scale would require massive investments on top of the $2.7 billion the state has invested to support its UTK system. 

“This comes with a lot of expense, a ton of expense, and right now we’re fighting just for the education dollars that we need to meet the needs of our kids currently,” Palet said. “If it were to happen, would it be a benefit? Absolutely.” 

But Palet is also careful to point out that doing so would cause even more suffering for private childcare providers at a time when they’re stretched thin. She thinks the private industry has value for parents, especially those who prefer a school that aligns with their cultural or religious views, is in their local neighborhood or is smaller than district options.  

“You don’t want to look at eliminating that entire field because then you eliminate parents having options of where to bring their children,” Palet said. “And I think it’s really important that parents have a choice.” 

But Barrera is hopeful the realization that a new unified system is needed will come for state officials, especially given the visibility of the private childcare system’s current struggles. 

“To have a real, free accessible early childhood system that’s a public system, the state is going to is going to need to continue that investment, and we would hope that the federal government would also continue that,” he said. “We should be doing better as a society and UTK is the first big step, in California at least, in that direction.” 

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Jakob McWhinney

Jakob McWhinney is Voice of San Diego's education reporter.

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7 Comments

  1. If the districts could show that they can care for the community’s 0-4 population, I’m on board… The way UPK looks this year, they don’t have a clue about early childhood development.

    1. Agree. The district has no clue and as a teacher in SDUSD I have to teach PE for an hour to 3-4 yr olds who have an attention span of about 15 min. Multiply that by 24 it’s a fail program. All day school for this age group will burn out all the new, inexperienced, teachers thus contributing to the already shortage. The real reason is $. If the district gets funding based on ADA (avg daily attend.) and 4 yr olds make the largest % those in pre school then why not take them and make them pawns for the districts coffers.

  2. The youngest child will always be the greatest challenge to teach. Consider, though, how well they thrive on socialization and creative enrichment efforts. Their TK experience can be foundational for climbing a primary grade scaffold that many enter unprepared. This student population is avoided by many teachers, while there do exist exceptional educators who seek this demanding level of engagement. Bravo to the dedication and leadership demonstrated here by Mr. Barrera.

    1. Preschool should absolutely be accessible for all, however, the districts do not have the infrastructure to do so. Instead, funding from the state should funnel to all licensed providers providing developmentally appropriate care to children 0-5. Per the statement from the teacher above, the elementary level is not developmentally appropriate for this age group.

  3. Barrera claims that UTK is good for students, but SDUSD has a poor track record. For example, nearly half–49%–of SDUSD’s third grade students are not meeting state standards in English Language Arts (per the CAASPP, which measures reading and writing), and 47% aren’t meeting standards in Math. (By 11th grade, ELA scores improve slightly with 58% meeting standards, but Math scores tank, with just 31% meeting standards.) Given those results, how is SDUSD not a “broken system?”

    Barrera also claims that UTK is good for parents. But unlike private childcare programs, where coverage is generally 9-12 hours per day, 250 days per year, SDUSD UTK is offered about 6.5 hours per day for 180 days. Does that actually work for most working parents?

    Finally, Barrera’s statement about not protecting childcare programs–which he views as “a system (where) 3 and 4-year-olds are sort of a cash cow”–is hypocritical. Since the district’s revenue is based on per student enrollment, the more students that enroll in UTK, the more money SDUSD gets. So, UTK is a “cash cow” for the district (courtesy of taxpayers rather than the parents).

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