California falls shamefully short on preschool – and parents are paying the price

Shelly Potter teaches preschool students at Natomas Park Elementary School in Sacramento in October 2016.
Shelly Potter teaches preschool students at Natomas Park Elementary School in Sacramento in October 2016. Sacramento Bee file

Since the 1990s, California’s leaders have promised to make preschool universal for every child. Maybe they’ll do it by the time I have grandchildren.

It’s already too late for my own kids. The youngest of my three sons graduated from preschool last week. I celebrated by writing my final monthly tuition check of $1,165, bringing my total spending on preschool tuition to more than $120,000.


All that tuition has wiped away most of my family’s savings. And yet, my kids are extremely lucky because they got to go to preschool at all.

Today, only half of California’s 4-year-olds and 21 percent of 3-year- olds are enrolled in either a public preschool or federally funded Head Start, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. By comparison, 90 percent of 5-year-olds attend a public kindergarten.

Joe Mathews (1)
Joe Mathews, co-author of "California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It," is California editor for ZÛcalo Public Square.

Left on their own, California families, especially in the middle class, struggle to find anything affordable (many preschool tuitions are more than the University of California’s) and full-day (to accommodate work schedules). Most preschool programs are targeted at poor kids, though an estimated 170,000 eligible children can’t go because there simply aren’t enough spots. And only 13 percent of low-income kids are in high-quality programs, advocates say. In a state with high poverty and inequality, such statistics are unconscionable.

Preschool makes liars of California adults, demonstrating the gap between progressive rhetoric (“children are the future”) and reactionary reality (“kids don’t vote so who cares?”).

Investments in early childhood education are of enormous social value: Kids who get high-quality preschool are less likely to fall behind in school and drop out, get into trouble or to be victims of crime.

But California can’t even keep up with Oklahoma, which adopted universal preschool in 1998. Voters here turned down a ballot initiative in 2006 and even part-way measures get blocked. In 2015, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill guaranteeing one year of part-day preschool to every poor 4-year-old. This year, instead of making preschool universal, the new state budget throws $16 billion into reserves.

Since big cuts in the recession, there has been some progress – an increase in the number of subsidized slots, transitional kindergarten for 4-year-olds, some local taxes to support early childhood education. But all this falls short of a universal system in which preschool is guaranteed like grade school. Instead, early childhood education is provided through a complicated patchwork of nine programs with different settings, standards, hours and fees. And transitional kindergarten is limited to students born between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2.

This lack of commitment undermines quality and staffing. It’s hard to get talented people to devote their careers to preschools and to offer the necessary training. And California relies far more than most states on unlicensed providers.

Despite these challenges, I do have hope. That hope is grounded in four Marin County children – the four kids, all under the age of 9, of Gavin Newsom.

Our likely next governor proposes a robust public system that starts with greater prenatal care, emphasizes coaching for parents and includes universal preschool that is integrated with K-12 schools and even universities.

This could be one more of a generation’s worth of unfulfilled promises, but there are reasons to take him seriously. As mayor of San Francisco, he implemented a “Preschool for All” program, funded by a voter-approved tax. And Newsom’s cannabis legalization ballot initiative directed some marijuana taxes to early childhood services.

Newsom will have to negotiate with preschool providers and education interests who see universal preschool as unwelcome competition for public funds. But he shouldn’t wait. Those early years fly by.

This fall, my youngest son will start kindergarten at our local public school. Since California guarantees only half-day kindergarten, he’ll be in the classroom for just three-and-a-half hours daily. My wife and I work, so we have to sign him up for two daycare programs at the school. To cover those, I’ll be writing another check – for $750 a month.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at