REGION — In a wealthy pocket of coastal North County stretching from Torrey Pines to Leucadia, five school districts are among the last in California not offering state-required transitional kindergarten.
The state requires all elementary school districts to offer transitional kindergarten, or TK, as a precursor to regular kindergarten for all four-year-olds by 2025-26. Most communities began rolling it out last year to students with fall birthdays and will continue expanding eligibility each subsequent year.
However, in San Diego County, a cluster of districts within one of the county’s wealthiest stretches have declined to offer TK for the time being: Encinitas Union, Solana Beach, Del Mar Union, Rancho Santa Fe and Cardiff school districts, the latter two containing just one and two schools, respectively.
Leaders say that as basic aid districts — those whose income from property taxes exceeds state funding for average daily attendance — they do not receive additional money from the state to implement TK and would have to divert money from existing programs.
At a July 26 meeting, Del Mar Union School District leaders indicated they were open to offering TK but didn’t want to rush it. They said there are details to iron out related to curriculum, hiring additional staff and allocating appropriate funding.
“We definitely pride ourselves in our district on being able to provide absolutely the best experience for our kids,” said Chris Delehanty, assistant superintendent of business services. “We need time to figure out what is gonna be that appropriate curriculum that is gonna match our district’s vision.”
For local parents, the need for free TK is urgent. Many are forced to spend thousands of dollars per month in childcare for their young children who would qualify for free transitional kindergarten in most other school districts.
Carolyn Szigethy, a parent living in the Del Mar Union boundary, pays around $1,900 monthly to send her child to preschool 30 minutes south in Hillcrest. Szigethy said she would love to take advantage of local TK if available.
“Having our child kindergarten-ready is a priority for us, but at this point it is on par with what college tuition costs,” Szigethy said.
While Del Mar Union has not committed to offering TK within any specific timeframe, district officials are starting to more seriously consider implementing the program due to an unexpected decline in enrollment that has freed up additional funds.
Del Mar Union generally expects 500 and 600 new students to enter kindergarten each fall, yet only 350 had enrolled as of mid-July, officials said. Around 40 more are expected to register by the time school starts, but this still marks a drastic decrease from previous years.
“We were anticipating a higher capture rate for the 2023-24 school year. As of July 17, at this point, they were not materializing,” said Ryan Stanley, assistant superintendent of human resources.
Since they rely on property taxes, Del Mar Union leaders said they would receive the same amount of funding even with the drop in enrolled students, providing extra money that could help fund TK.
Although not compulsory, TK is widely considered to provide young children valuable preparation for kindergarten and first grade. Offering it for free through public schools expands these opportunities to more children, especially those not already enrolled in other early education programs like private preschools.
Stephanie Feldstein, a mom of three, said her daughter turned four last year, and her son will turn four this winter. However, as someone living within the Solana Beach School District, she relies on childcare at around $2,500 per child per month.
Feldstein said that she and many other families are desperate for Solana Beach to offer TK, but since their children are not in the district yet, it is harder to advocate for change.
“It can be hard, because the people who would benefit from it the most are the most stressed, tired parents. It’s hard to advocate for yourself,” Feldstein said. “I don’t see why we can’t work as a community to figure out a way to make it happen, especially knowing that we have some of the highest per-pupil funding in the county. I think we can do it, we just have to try.”
Solana Beach School District Superintendent Jodee Brentlinger said in an email that the district will explore the possibility of offering TK over the coming months.
“Solana Beach School District is very interested in exploring any and all possibilities for providing a transitional kindergarten program and will be dedicating time this school year (2023-24) to researching any and all options,” Brentlinger said.
“As we consider adding a new grade level, we want to be sure we can do so while at the same time preserving the many programs and services our communities have come to love, cherish, and expect at all our schools (lower class sizes, intervention staff, school counselors, Library Media teachers, English learner support staff, STREAM teachers, music teachers, and most importantly high-quality teachers and educational professionals to name a few).”
The Encinitas Union School District confirmed they are not pursuing TK at this time but are continuing to lobby for the state to fund this implementation in basic aid districts.
“We have all been advocating and lobbying for this mandate to be funded for all children, not just children in state-funded districts,” the district said in a statement. “We recognize the value and appreciate the intent behind universal transitional kindergarten. However, it is critical that community-funded districts be able to access the funding, and there is not currently a mechanism for us to do that.”
Del Mar Union officials said it is more expensive to implement one section of transitional kindergarten than a K-6 section because of staffing requirements. One adult is required per 12 students in TK versus one adult per 24 students in the second year of kindergarten, and TK teachers must also have early education credits.
However, the refusal to offer transitional kindergarten based on cost has frustrated many, mainly because dozens of California’s approximately 120 basic aid elementary districts have implemented the program without state aid.
Some parents have also raised an eyebrow at the fact that per-pupil spending in four of the five districts, except Encinitas Union, exceeds the San Diego County average.
The consequences for failing to implement TK, if any, are unclear. State leaders have emphasized that it is required for all districts, not just the majority, that receive funding based on average daily attendance.
The San Diego County Office of Education stated earlier this year that it cannot enforce TK requirements for local districts.
Del Mar Union has had one vocal advocate for transitional kindergarten on the school board, Trustee Katherine Fitzpatrick, who is also a parent to TK-age children.
Fitzpatrick rejects the assertion from Del Mar Union and neighboring districts that they need more funding to offer TK and believes the district can redirect some funds from other programs without compromising its high-quality education.
“To say they can’t afford it, it’s completely false. It’s completely in the hands of the board, all these school boards, and these superintendents,” Fitzpatrick said.
Fitzpatrick said while she wishes the district had gotten TK together for the coming school year, she believes it is possible to get it ready in time for next year.
“Let’s deliver the instruction and curriculum like the rest of the four-year-olds in our state are given access to. We are falling behind in that regard,” she said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to include a comment from the Solana Beach School District.