Districts face early TK rollout penalties
Two districts will be fined millions of dollars for ‘doing what’s good for families’
April 29, 2024
Garden Grove USD was trying to do the right thing for its community.
But now the district’s efforts to expand transitional kindergarten classrooms to serve more students in this high-poverty district is costing them.
Garden Grove USD and other districts throughout the state are being penalized for violating class size and student-to-teacher ratios in TK classrooms if they take even one student whose birthday falls outside of the state’s TK enrollment timeline.
ACSA is working with state education leaders and the Legislature to remedy these surprise penalties that some district leaders may not even be aware of yet.
“[These districts] decided to embrace transitional kindergarten, enroll as many children as they could, even outside eligibility windows, and they’re now facing audit penalties because the rules of the program changed a few weeks before the start of this current school year,” said ACSA Legislative Advocate Megan Baier. “They find themselves in a very difficult situation.”
Superintendents affected by this penalty were in Sacramento April 24 to ask lawmakers to address the situation. However, AB 2548, a bill that would have waived the penalties, died in the Assembly Education Committee.
In 2021, California embarked on a five-year timeline for expanding transitional kindergarten to all 4-year-olds, known as universal TK. The state is moving the TK enrollment birthdate for 4-year-olds back by several months each year until 2025-26, when all 4-year-old children would have the ability to enroll in TK.
Many districts have exceeded the deadlines by enrolling students with earlier birthdates than required by law.
“We were very excited about the state’s announcement to expand transitional kindergarten because we knew it meant that all of our families, who primarily reside in high-poverty, immigrant communities, would have access to transitional kindergarten,” said Garden Grove USD Superintendent Gabriela Mafi.
Garden Grove USD has an 81 percent unduplicated student count and many families cannot afford to pay for preschool, Mafi said.
“Many of our families shared that their alternative to TK in GGUSD would have been allowing an iPhone or tablet to serve as a babysitter while they work,” Mafi said.
School leaders at Garden Grove USD received powerful feedback from the community that compelled the district to accelerate the implementation of TK to serve as many children as soon as possible.
The district decided to invest in expanding its TK programs, even though the state would not provide ADA funding for these early enrollment students. The district moved forward with hiring aides, teachers and a principal on special assignment to roll out full-day TK classes at all 45 elementary schools in the 2022-23 school year.
Mafi and other educators in the district knew the investment would be worth it. TK students are infinitely better-prepared for kindergarten, both academically and socially, bridging the school readiness gap between high-poverty and more affluent communities.
Mafi also points out that many of the 4-year-olds were children who were kept home from daycare or preschool due to COVID-19.
“Now, transitional kindergarten is the first opportunity they have to interact with other children and learn from a teacher,” she said. “Missing this opportunity creates a noticeable gap, especially for children who might have had very few academic and social experiences due to the pandemic.”
In testimonials filmed by Garden Grove USD, parents express their gratitude for the TK program, which alleviates the stress of trying to find private child care, which is often expensive, inaccessible or low quality.
One parent said the TK program has allowed her to go to school to learn English and to look for work.
“If I hadn’t brought him to school, he wouldn’t learn anything of what he knows now,” said Celeste, according to a translation of her video testimony. “He would have spent more time on a phone, stuck to a screen or television doing nothing at home. But now he has made a lot of progress. I am very grateful for this program that is helping us all a lot.”
Parents said they were able to work more hours thanks to full-day TK the district offered. But these parents weren’t aware of what this life-changing program would end up costing the district.
In July 2023, weeks before the start of school, Orange County Department of Education alerted its districts to a trailer bill signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom that created new statutory requirements for the 2023-24 and 2024-25 school years for school districts that offered early TK to 4-year-olds born after June 3. These changes included establishing significant penalties that could impact districts rolling out the expansion of TK before the 2025-26 deadline.
Districts could face fines for not meeting requirements in one or both of the following scenarios: Exceeding student-to-teacher ratios – If a TK classroom has even one early enrollment student and the ratio of students to staff exceeds 10:1, the entire classroom is in violation.
Exceeding class sizes – If a TK classroom has even one early enrollment student and the class size exceeds 20 students, the classroom is in violation. The class size penalty also incorporates a formula with a greater penalty when average daily attendance is higher.
“By the time we learned of this change in late July, there was no time to course-correct as staffing ratios are negotiated a year in advance to prepare for the school year, kindergarten registration is conducted in February the year prior, and facility needs are determined the fall prior,” Mafi said. In October, the district learned how much it would be penalized: around $3.1 million.
“That would fund approximately 20 teachers,” Mafi said.
“This is just a disconnect between the legislative calendar and the school year calendar.”
John Garcia, Downey USD Superintendent
Garden Grove USD had planned to be in compliance. However many age-eligible students started checking in during the year, thus increasing class sizes and ratios. But you can’t just “create a new classroom” midyear, as Mafi pointed out.
“We’re certainly not going to send these kids home, and we’re certainly not going to disappoint these parents,” said Mafi, who described the district’s situation on ACSA’s Legislative Lunch Break. Mafi said the district did its due diligence when planning for TK expansion. Garden Grove USD asked both county and state staff multiple times to ensure it would be allowed to roll-out TK earlier than the state’s timeline, and repeatedly the district was told it could do so, without any mention of penalties.
ACSA is working with superintendents and state leaders to ask the state to waive penalties for the 2023-24 school year.
Mafi and Downey USD Superintendent John Garcia, whose district is also impacted, traveled to Sacramento in March and again on April 24 to explain to lawmakers how these penalties will impact their schools, especially as they navigate reduced revenues from the state.
“This is just a disconnect between the legislative calendar and the school year calendar. We start making commitments to our families in January and February and this trailer bill wasn’t passed until the middle of July,” Garcia said on the April 10 broadcast of ACSA’s Legislative Lunch Break. “This is good for our families. ... We just want [legislators] to know and understand that this is a good thing. We acted in good faith the whole time, and we’re just asking them not to penalize us for doing it.”
Superintendent Gabriela Mafi, left, and Superintendent John Garcia, right, testified at the Assembly Education Committee on April 24 in support of legislation authored by Assemblymember Tri Ta, center, that would waive penalties for districts that took early enrollment TK students this school year. The bill failed to make it out of committee.