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Next year, San Diego Unified will offer preschool to all families. All families who can afford it, that is.

Earlier this week, Mayor Kevin Faulconer joined Superintendent Cindy Marten to announce a “game changing” initiative to that would expand access to preschool.

Faulconer and the city didn’t actually help fund the preschool initiative, called Pre-K for All. Rather, a district spokeswoman said Faulconer simply came to express his support for early education.

Learning Curve-sq-01“The mayor has been a tireless advocate for economic growth in our city and recognizes that access to Pre-K is an essential issue for many families,” said San Diego Unified spokeswoman Jennifer Rodriguez.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

District officials have long touted the quality of its preschool programs, but until now those seats were limited to families who meet strict income eligibility standards – which only covers the very poorest San Diegans.

It’s ridiculously hard to qualify – and stay qualified – for free preschool. A family of four, where mom and dad work full-time but earn minimum wage, could actually make too much money to attend free preschool.

So this year the district will try something different. It will open up a certain number of spots to parents who make above the income cap but are willing to pay for a district-run preschool.

Costs range from $530 a month for a half-day program to $1,060 a month for full-day spots. Anyone who makes above the income cap will pay a flat fee for preschool, and pay extra if they can’t pick up their kids until 6 p.m. The annual registration fee is $150.

District officials say that’s cheaper than what parents would pay for private preschools in many San Diego neighborhoods.

According to data from the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network, the average cost of preschool in San Diego County was $9,952 a year, or about $830 a month, in 2014.

And many faith-based preschools – those run out of churches, synagogues or nonprofits – charge even less. (My daughter attends a faith-based preschool and we pay $700 a month for five days a week, full time. Other faith-based preschools are similarly priced.)

Lucia Garay, director of the San Diego County Office of Education’s early education unit, said faith-based preschools are often cheaper because churches and nonprofits receive subsidies that cut down on overhead. Those preschools may not have to pay facility costs, for example. A secretary for a nonprofit might also serve as the secretary for the preschool.

Still cheaper options for cash-strapped families are home-based childcare providers that offer less formal education programs, or even just having family members care for children. One study estimated that 40 percent of California children younger than 5 are cared for in home-based settings.

According to the group Children Now, only about 48 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds in San Diego County attend preschool. But that percentage is more of a best guess, based on census data and enrollment data from subsidized preschools. Nobody actually tracks how many kids attend faith-based or informal types of childcare.

Of course, not all preschools are created equal. One study showed stark differences between instruction provided in home-based childcare from instruction provided in more formal settings.

And one benefit of sending your kids to a subsidized preschool is that they’re more likely to participate in the Quality Preschool Initiative supported by First 5 and the San Diego County Office of Education – a program aimed at boosting preschool quality.

District officials have couched the Pre-K for All initiative as a way to expand access to preschool. But the scope of that expansion will rest on how many parents are willing to pay for district preschools out of pocket.

In other words, the district’s main challenge will be figuring out how to fill its preschool spots with families who are willing to pay for it, when it hasn’t been able to figure out how to fill up the spots it provided for free.

The Half-Day Challenge

Choosing a preschool comes down to more than what parents can afford. It also comes down to what works for parents’ schedules.

Recently, Parent Voices, a group that advocates statewide for expanded access to preschool, surveyed Bay Area parents who were on preschool waiting lists and noted the common barriers.

Jennifer Greppi, lead organizer for Parents Voices, said income criteria, combined with onerous paperwork requirements, were the two most glaring challenges.

But Greppi also discovered that many parents simply can’t take advantage of preschool programs because they’re not conducive to their work schedules.

In order to maximize the funding they do receive from the state, many school districts choose to limit the number of full-day spots they offer so they can offer more half-day spots, and in theory, serve more kids. In 2014, San Diego Unified offered about 960 full day spots and 2,000 half-day spots.

But half-day spots don’t always work for parents, said Greppi. Here’s how she explained it in a recent story:

Part-time preschool typically lasts three hours, so schools can offer one class in the morning and another in the afternoon.

But that doesn’t do much for working parents, who would need to leave work to pick up their child, and then figure out something for them to do the rest of the day.

“For many families, that’s not even an option,” said Greppi.”

Rodriguez, the district spokeswoman, said the district has capacity to offer 3,460 seats this year – about 400 more than last year – and hopes to use revenue from parents who pay for preschool to offer additional spots.

Rodriguez couldn’t say how many of those spots would be half-day and how many would be full-day because it will be based on parent demand and is yet to be determined.

That could mean parents in the middle might have the hardest time accessing district-run preschool programs – those who earn too much to qualify for free preschool, but not enough to afford what the school district is charging.

Despite limitations, Greppi believes California’s preschool system is underfunded, but isn’t broken.

“What school districts really need to do is figure out what parents truly need, and then figure out how to get them access to it. And the only way they’re going to get that is by talking to parents,” Greppi told me recently.

VOSD staff writer Mario Koran is also a fellow at New America California.

    This article relates to: Education, Must Reads, The Learning Curve

    Written by Mario Koran

    Mario is an investigative reporter focused on immigration, border and related criminal justice issues. Reach him directly at 619.325.0531, or by email:

    Todd Maddison
    Todd Maddison

    This is absolutely a step in the right direction....

    Now... perhaps the qualifications for "free" preschool should be changed, and certainly the "half day" option does not work for most working families, but beyond that the general idea that we now let the market determine who profits from providing a quality education is movement forward.

    We'll now see whether parents think their child is better off with the $1060/month public preschool or the $700 private preschool, won't we?

    Unfortunately I'm sure that implementing this plan requires up front expenses - setting up classrooms, hiring teachers, perhaps bulking up administrative staff in some way, etc, etc.  I trust the $1060/month number was calculated taking this into account (including the future pension costs of all.....!!!!?)

    When it fails - because it's too expensive and parents view private preschools as a better deal - will we learn from that, and then reduce the district expenses accordingly?  Probably not...

    If only we went to voucher systems overall, so EVERYONE could "vote with their dollars" on which schools they want to send their kids to.

    Then we'd see true improvement in education....

    bgetzel subscriber

    It appears that what started out as a program to boost the education achievement of kids from low income families has turned into something else, just to fill the slots. Instead of sharging a fee (which appears to be above the market rate in any case), perhaps the school district should concentrate on finding ways to attract the original target population!

    EducatedMom subscribermember

    Does the SDUSD preschool actually run year-round, or does it take breaks throughout the school year (like winter break, spring break, and a long summer break)?  If the latter, how does that work for any working parent who isn't employed by the school district?

    SherryS subscriber

    Will the fee for preschool cover the cost to the District? --i.e. is this revenue neutral or does it come at a cost to K-12 education? I ask because San Diego Unified School District is not even funding the basics --like books-- for some elementary schools. 

    Todd Maddison
    Todd Maddison

    @SherryS Just fyi, the general funding for K-12 education throughout the state runs about $10K/student (according to the CA DOE for 2014-15). 

    At $1060/month, I suspect that fully funds this program, even though I'm sure there is a large amount of gold-plating going on and it could likely be done just as well for less - as with any government program...