Only half of California’s families will be able to find a spot in a preschool for their children when school begins, but at Twin Rivers Unified many of the seats are going unclaimed.
Many districts say it’s the stringent state and federal income eligibility requirements that are keeping students away from preschool and leaving seats empty. Others cite the programs’ inflexible, mostly half-day hours, which make it difficult for low-income working families who need more options.
Julie Montali, Twin Rivers Unified’s head of early childhood education, said the district had 391 of its nearly 1,000 state-funded preschool seats still available at the end of July. There also are about 33 slots left in the federally-funded Head Start program, which offers 260 seats in the district.
She says cultural differences, transportation issues and a lack of information about the programs are some of the reasons families are not enrolling their kids in the district’s preschool programs.
“I think we have traditional communities that have wanted to keep their kids with friends, families and neighbors,” she said.
Educators have to convince many parents of the benefits of preschool. Research shows that kids who attend a quality preschool perform better at math and reading, are better prepared for kindergarten, behave better in class, and are more likely to graduate from high school and go to college, according to First 5 California, a state organization focused on early childhood education and wellness.
Karen Manship and other researchers from AIR and UC Berkeley published a report in July that said almost half of California families with a 3- or 4-year-old can’ t find a preschool program with available slots, whether they are financed through parental fees or public dollars. Only one in eight families with an infant or toddler can find a licensed center to provide care.
Despite that need, state seats are going unfilled. “There has been a problem recently that state preschool providers are under earning their contracts,” Manship said. “They can’t fill the slots.”
Preschool doesn’t meet the demands of all families, said Manship. Low-income working parents, for example, may need full-day preschool or later preschool hours, she said.
At Sacramento City Unified, 24 of the district’s preschool seats and only one of the Early Head Start infant/toddler seats were empty at the end of July. The district had 1,872 preschool slots in 2014-15, but had only 1,691 spaces last year and this year.
Sacramento City Unified Director of Child Development Jacquie Bonini said she sees some of the same problems as Twin Rivers, but blames many of the empty seats on underfunding from the California State Preschool Program. She says the district makes ends meet by merging state-funded students with federally-funded Head Start students, who are funded at a higher level.
These merged, or braided, classrooms must abide by the rules of the federal Head Start program, which has more stringent income eligibility requirements. The requirements are so strict that a California minimum-wage employee working full-time makes too much to send their child to Head Start, according to Bonini.
The state Legislature has increased funding for preschool recently by paying for additional seats, but not spending more per seat. The 2016-17 budget included $100 million in Proposition 98 funding for 8,877 additional full-day preschool seats to be phased in over four years, according to the California Department of Education. About $90 million will be awarded to districts which apply for funds in the fall.
Sacramento City Unified officials say the increases it received from the state last year and this year were not sufficient to meet the costs of operating preschool classes. In 2017-18, the school district paid $1.7 million out of its general fund to cover the gap between the amount it received to fund the programs and the cost to run them, said Alex Barrios, district spokesman. They expect the funding gap for 2018-19 to be $2.3 million.
The federal and state increases in funding have allowed Twin Rivers to add 160 more students to its preschool programs this year, but they may have to return some of the money if they can’t fill the seats.
Programs in low-income counties like Fresno also are begging for students.
By mid-July, Fresno Unified School District had about 1,860 students enrolled in the half-day preschool program, with space for a thousand more — it’s highest enrollment so far. The district also has 224 students ages 3 and 4 in full-day spots. Deanna Mathies, the executive officer for the Early Learning Department, projects the district will fill 95 percent of its seats by the time the state comes looking for refunds for empty seats.
“My hunch is parents really need full-day child care; most have part-day preschool,” Mathies said.
It’s difficult if you are a working parent who has to pick up and drop off a student and you don’t have support or transportation, she said.
Fresno Unified has worked to decrease the number of empty spots, including using about $7.4 million a year in district funds to supplement the funds from the state.
“They didn’t want it to be limited,” Mathies said. “They wanted as many children as they could to have a preschool experience, regardless of family sizes or income.”
She said the district money allowed it to buy a day care center for infants through 4-year-old children.
“Infants and toddlers (classes) are always full and there is always a waiting list,” Mathies said.
Mathies said the first group of infants are moving into the 4-year-old class, which has allowed the district to collect data on their progress. She said they will continue to collect that data to see how the students perform as they matriculate through school.
“We know the investment is sound,” said Mathies. “We want to start to link it down to the child.”
The district also hired coaches to work with teachers to improve the quality of the program.
Next, the district had to figure out why parents weren’t enrolling their children in preschool in some schools. They discovered the preschools that always have a waitlist are usually in areas with few private preschools. Some parents are particular about which school their child attends or whether it’s a morning or afternoon preschool. They found these things mattered to parents because of their work obligations or because they lacked transportation.
They also found that migrant families are now often too afraid to enroll their children because they fear providing information to officials. There are parents who don’t want to show documentation like passports, shot records or birth certificates to prove the number of members in their families — a requirement for eligibility, Mathies said.
Last year the district was able to meet its state contract for preschool seats, although it narrowly made it, Mathies said. She isn’t sure the seats will be filled this year.
This year the district stepped up its efforts to fill seats by setting up appointments for parents with preschool-age children so they can discuss enrolling. Now it is considering partnering with community organizations to offer preschool in the evenings and on weekends to better serve families. “They would provide the facility and we would provide the program,” she said.
Even middle-income communities like Natomas were having trouble filling seats in the weeks before school opened Aug. 8. Two weeks ago Natomas launched a promotion drive because of the numerous seats it still had open in its preschools.
“The situation is not unusual,” said Jim Sanders of Natomas Unified. “As the school year approaches, families begin to think more about preschool possibilities. We tend to get a surge in enrollment and fill available seats.”
Data show that income eligibility is a key factor, he said. “Many ineligible students apply.”
Sanders said without the income and family size eligibility requirements, the district likely would have a waiting list.