The morning clouds had yet to burn off, but the line of anxious moms and dads already stretched out the door and past the playground at Valencia Park Elementary. They came loaded with forms and documents — birth certificates, electricity bills, vaccination records — hoping to score a free spot in preschool. “Number 10!” a woman called out, ushering a young couple inside.
Inside a crowded classroom, copying machines hummed as assistants copied forms and clerks weighed their fates. They go through four reams of paper each day, copying each and every sheet. “This? This is slow,” said community assistant Blanca Mendez, when asked about the growing line.
One mother in a black baseball cap couldn’t provide any paychecks. She told the clerk, Claudia Garcia, that nobody in her family worked. Garcia was skeptical, asking how they got by. Slowly the truth came out. The mom did have a job and was making some money. Garcia broke the bad news, which the mother already suspected: She made too much to get into the program.
“That’s just how it works for state preschool,” Garcia said before showing her to the door.
When a child turns five, they have a right to go to kindergarten. Free of charge. But preschool is a privilege, despite solid evidence that early schooling can help narrow the achievement gap between wealthy children and their poorer classmates. Only a handful of states offer free preschool to everyone and fewer actually fund it; California voters rejected the idea of universal preschool four years ago.
The result is that right now, preschool is a luxury for those who are rich enough to easily afford it, charity for those who are poor enough to deserve it, and a headache for those stuck in between.