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Universal Pre-K Has Arrived in California

Universal Pre-K Has Arrived in California

Published: Aug. 15, 2023Updated: Feb. 28, 2024

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Universal pre-kindergarten (UPK) is almost here! Rolling out UPK has many benefits for diverse learners, especially for children with disabilities. According to the California School Boards Association (CSBA), with this implementation, an additional 250,000 children will enter early education over the next three years. As stated by the National Institution for Early Education Research (NIEER), these “diverse, inclusive early childhood learning environments'' not only benefit our children with disabilities but also have a positive effect on children “from all economic, ethnic, and racial backgrounds, as well as dual language learners.“ To get some more clarity on what UPK will bring, we consulted Dr. Sarah Pelangka, special education advocate and owner of KnowIEPs, and Heather Snipes, Program Specialist for the Supporting Inclusive Practices (SIP) Project, which is funded by the California Department of Education, focusing on improving outcomes for students with disabilities.
3 key takeaways
  1. Parents of a 4-year-old child will be able to enroll their child in any available early education option, whether that’s transitional kindergarten, California State Preschool Program, Head Start, private preschool, or pre-kindergarten.
  2. TK is the only option that will be universally available and free of cost for all families of a child turning 4 years old by September 1.
  3. The UPK expansion will provide guaranteed access to early learning opportunities for children with disabilities through the California State Preschool Program, reserving 10% enrollment for children with disabilities.

What is universal pre-kindergarten?

First, let’s dive into the differences between preschool, pre-kindergarten (pre-k), and transitional kindergarten (TK). While preschool has shifted towards having a more academic focus in recent years, historically it has been perceived to be play-based, and has often been synonymous with “daycare” or “nursery school” when compared to its early education counterparts. Pre-K then begins focusing on academics that will help children prepare for elementary school while TK serves as a bridge between preschool/pre-k and kindergarten while still including play-based learning, and is part of the elementary school experience.

Snipes explains that UPK “refers to the early care and education that is offered during the two years prior to kindergarten. It comprises state preschool, Head Start, private preschool, transitional kindergarten, and expanded learning opportunities.” Universal pre-kindergarten is an overall encompassing term for expanding possibilities in preschool and transitional kindergarten. She states, “As part of the larger Preschool to Third Grade Initiative, California has been focusing on expanding access to early learning and care opportunities for all children in the two years prior to entering kindergarten, with a focus on serving those who have been historically marginalized. There is also a focus on ‘mixed delivery’ within the UPK system, so families have options and are able to choose the program/format that is most appropriate for them and their child.”

Early educational opportunities before the age of 6 are optional by California law and can be offered at private schools or public schools as fee-based programs. Some families whose income is below the federal poverty threshold can qualify for free, state-funded preschool programs, such as the California State Preschool Program (CSPP). Federally funded Head Start programs also offer no-cost preschool services to such families with children ages 3-5 and are required to accept at least a percentage of students with disabilities. If you need help finding the right preschool for your little one, check out our transition to preschool article here.

So what’s changing?

The goal of UPK is to create more accessible opportunities for younger children to access education. Snipes explains, “The intention is to provide more access to quality early learning and care for ALL children in order to build strong social-emotional foundations that will support academic competence once they enter elementary school, either in TK or kindergarten.”

Per the California Department of Education, UPK is an “umbrella term that includes the California State Preschool Program (CSPP), TK at the California Department of Education, as well as Head Start and other district and local community-based preschool programs, early learning services for students with disabilities, private pay preschool, and expanded learning options to support access to a full day of services.”

Snipes breaks this down, saying that ideally with the enrollment of UPK, parents of a 4-year-old child, who want education before kindergarten, will be able to enroll their child in any available early education option—whether that’s TK, CSPP, Head Start, private preschool, or pre-kindergarten. She says, “It’s important for families to understand that they are not required to send their child to transitional kindergarten if they are happy with the early care and education program their child is enrolled in. Many families choose to stay with their home childcare provider, private, state, or Head Start preschool program all the way up until kindergarten because it’s the setting they feel is best for their child. However, many programs within the UPK system offer limited hours or have fees associated with them, so families are choosing to send their children to transitional kindergarten out of necessity, either because it offers transportation, extended hours, or it is free.”

UPK will open early education opportunities for younger 4-year-old children who were previously only able to access preschool (which was not guaranteed to be at no cost to families). While choice and participation in UPK, or more accessible preschool and TK programs, is optional, TK is the only option that will be universally available and free of cost for all families of a child turning 4 years old by September 1.

This new design will make it possible for more children to access no-cost education earlier on as many families cannot afford private preschools and may not qualify for state-funded options. Do keep in mind that each district will be affected differently during this expansion, and what goes for one district may not be the same for all.

Some districts, including LAUSD, plan on rolling out changes this 2023-2024 school year.

What will the rollout of UPK change, and how will it affect children with disabilities?

In California, children are not required to attend kindergarten or TK, but they are required to have full-time compulsory education by the age of 6 (EC Section 48200).

Specifically for children with qualifying disabilities or who are deemed “at-risk,” the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Part C program promotes the development of infants and toddlers from birth to 3 years of age through Early Intervention services. An “at-risk infant or toddler” is defined as “ an individual under 3 years of age who would be at risk of experiencing a substantial developmental delay if early intervention services were not provided to the individual.” Early intervention is defined as developmental services that are: provided under public supervision, are provided at no cost (unless the state requires otherwise), are designed to meet the developmental needs of the infant/toddler as determined and outlined by an IFSP, meet the standards of the state and are provided by qualified professionals, and are provided within the child’s natural environment to the maximum extent possible. Per IDEA Part C, California Early Start and Regional Center are responsible for Early Intervention, or SELPA for low incidence disabilities, for children under 3 years of age. This may be different outside of California, as every state has different agencies that are responsible for the implementation of Part C.

Once a child approaches their third birthday, the child can be evaluated at their child’s local school district in order to determine special education eligibility according to IDEA. As per IDEA Part B, once a child with qualifying eligibility turns 3, the school district is responsible for Early Intervention until age 5. These Early Intervention services between ages 3-5 are often referred to as preschool.

Although IDEA ensures that children with qualifying conditions will receive special education services, the inclusive education programs for this age group are few and far between. Many school districts offer only what is required to comply with the law: a classroom (or several) solely devoted to educating children with disabilities, without the inclusion of typically developing peers. The implementation of UPK aims to expand the number of TK options, in theory making it easier for parents to find an inclusive placement for their child with a disability. According to a paper shared by NIEER, “Universal pre-K creates inclusive education programs that allow children with disabilities the opportunity at a critical early stage to thrive in the ‘least restrictive environment,’ which is their right as set forth in law more than two decades ago. Many states have promoted pre-k, among other things, as an opportunity to meet the needs of children with disabilities, by creating the opportunity for inclusive classrooms where they can learn with their typically developing peers.”

The UPK expansion will provide guaranteed access to early learning opportunities for children with disabilities through the California State Preschool Program (CSPP), reserving 10% enrollment for children with disabilities, including $485 million to support this enrollment and provide support for dual language learners.

The California Department of Education explains, “a major goal of UPK is to not only increase access to early education experiences but also to provide quality and joyful learning experiences where children with disabilities participate in general education classrooms with their peers and all children engage in culturally and linguistically supportive environments across our UPK system.
The current work of the CDE in updating the Preschool Learning Foundations, assessments, and curricula will also serve as a quality foundation for UPK, as well as a framework from pre-k to third grade, so that all children are ready to transition to kindergarten and beyond.”

What are the concerns about universal prekindergarten?

Some parents believe the implementation process of UPK will take away their ability to fight for private preschool placement through due process. Dr. Pelangka says she’s already seeing this happen. She believes that while UPK is going to technically allow for more accessibility due to the requirement for all districts to have a TK option, districts are still offering SAI TK classes. Therefore, there is still the possibility that your child will be placed in a restrictive, special day class as opposed to the inclusive preschool setting you may have had them in, privately. In addition, districts are arguing that the least restrictive environment is that which allows your child to be surrounded by their, “same-age peers” as they have, “more language and higher play skills”. Thus, TK is a more appropriate setting than their former preschool setting would be. In order to see true inclusion, Dr. Pelangka states that full inclusion needs to begin in preschool, not kindergarten, with all districts housing an inclusive preschool option.

Another concern is that the implementation of more universal early education programs in public schools will not cater to the developmental needs of 4-year-olds. Having expanded universal TK opportunities will shift learning from play-based to a greater focus on classroom instruction. Dr. Pelangka says this raises questions because kids learn best through play, and this shift will involve much more academic time sitting at a desk and less time working on social-emotional development through play-based learning. There are worries that shaping kids to perform based on achievement tests and measures is starting younger and younger, with longer days and no nap time. In order to counteract these concerns, the CDE has developed thoroughly researched play-based learning frameworks for preschool, called the Preschool Learning Foundations, as well as for transitional kindergarten. Their TK model is a hybrid model of the preschool framework and the kindergarten Common Core State Standards (CCSS), without the expectation of kids mastering these kindergarten standards.

There are also concerns about a lack of state funding for some districts. The CDE has stated that budget increases will help the shortage of teachers and school staff with the “Early Education Teacher Development grant allocating $100 million to Local Educational Agencies (LEAs) to ensure there are enough qualified teachers in the UPK system as it expands,” yet some parents who are currently dealing with staff shortages, a lack of instructional aides, and fewer 1:1 paraprofessionals are worried that existing child care and schools will be challenged by the loss of students and movement of staff.

A major question from parents is whether school districts will be able to find enough teachers, even with increases in budget and pay for teachers. While the school must provide the support that is agreed upon by the IEP team per IDEA, some parents are worried that with the expansion of TK options, public schools won’t be able to offer the support necessary for a child who needs additional medical or behavioral support. Families who do not feel public placement options are appropriate for their child can advocate within their IEP for the school district to pay for a private option, but if more early education programs expand access to public options, these parents may lose the leverage they currently have to insist on getting the private placement paid for when it's still the option that better fits their child’s needs.

While private-pay preschools are part of the UPK system, there is a fear among the early childhood community that the expansion of TK will take away from both public and private preschool programs. Snipes explains: “We have seen this to be true to some extent, especially for those families who have to choose the lower-cost option. Both private and public preschool programs are looking at enrolling younger children, which can come at an additional monetary cost. Because there has been very little increase in private provider reimbursement rates in our state, the prospect of spending more money to adequately serve younger children can be scary and even unrealistic.”

In need of some words of encouragement?

Snipes says, “As a technical assistance provider for programs working to improve inclusive practices, I have seen more transitional kindergarten/elementary educators collaborating with preschool professionals — either on district sites or during professional learning opportunities — when they have otherwise worked in silos. This allows for more robust early education teams that are united in developmentally appropriate practices for ALL young children. It also provides space for preschool special education and general education professionals to collaborate with elementary special education and general education professionals around student transitions, which will help maintain continuity for the child and their family as they move from one setting to the next.”

Are you starting to see the effects of universal pre-kindergarten, good or bad? We want to know!



What is universal pre-kindergarten?

So what’s changing?

What will the rollout of UPK change, and how will it affect children with disabilities?

What are the concerns about universal prekindergarten?

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Lexi NovakUndivided Writer and Membership Coordinator
A dedicated writer taking complex topics and breaking them down into everyday language. With experience crafting content across digital mediums, she has supported editorial and production teams in both news and film. Lexi is the oldest in a set of triplets, raised by a compassionate mother and special education teacher whose life mission is to make sure every kid experiences joy. Lexi carries forward her mother’s passion in writing. Reviewed by Cathleen Small, Undivided Editor Adelina Sarkisyan, Undivided Writer and Editor Karen Ford Cull, Undivided Content Specialist and Writer Brittany Olsen, Undivided Editor Contributors Heather Snipes, Program Specialist for the Supporting Inclusive Practices (SIP) Project Dr. Sarah Pelangka, Special Education Advocate, BCBA-D, and owner of KnowIEPs

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