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A bill signed by Gov. Jerry Brown lets San Diego and Solana Counties to start pilot programs that allow them more flexibility in how they use child care subsidies from the state.
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There’s a child care shortage throughout San Diego County.
Last week, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that would allow the county to start a pilot program that might be a step toward tackling the issue.
The bill, AB 377, co-written by Assemblyman Jim Frazier and Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, will allow San Diego and Solana Counties to start pilot programs that give them more flexibility in how they use child care subsidies from the state.
The county receives money from the state and federal governments to subsidize childcare. It uses the money by contracting with agencies and organizations to provide care at lower cost to eligible families, and reimbursing parents for the cost. The contractors can be school districts or other organizations, like nonprofits.
Gonzalez Fletcher said she was approached by San Diego Unified, which has one of the largest contracts to provide preschool and child care in the county, because it wasn’t able to use all the money it’s been getting, but knew there were more families who need child care.
High-cost counties, like San Diego, have been leaving large amounts child care subsidies on the table. The state sets income requirements that spell out who is eligible to receive subsidies for child care. But in high-cost areas like San Diego, families might earn too much to qualify yet still genuinely struggle to afford care.
In 2014-2015, $11.2 million total in child care subsidies went unused in San Diego County, said Lucia Garay, director of the San Diego County Office of Education’s early education unit. The subsidies primarily are for children up to 5 years old, though a couple of programs serve up to third grade.
But the leftover money didn’t mean there wasn’t need.
Several counties, including Fresno and several in the Bay Area, had already started pilot programs to try to address this issue.
“Child care in general is something that never goes away,” she said. “But the child care subsidies and how we implement the program is something we really need to grapple with. We wanted to make sure that we could create a plan for San Diego that lets us maximize the money the state is willing to put into it.”
Up until this past legislative session, the income eligibility was based on pre-recession numbers, said Garay. That meant to qualify for subsidies or for child care reimbursements, a family of four would have to earn no more than $3,908 a month.
“I’ve heard of parents sometimes forgoing pay raises so they could keep their preschool or childcare,” Garay said.
The state budget process this year upped the threshold to $4,877 a month for a family of four, and included other provisions to help, said Garay. If a parent gets a raise in the middle of the year that puts them above the eligibility threshold, the family can potentially continue in the program until the end of the year.
That will help San Diego utilize more of the money, too. But the pilot program will allow the county more flexibility with the child care money it receives from the state, so it can keep any money that’s left. The lowest-income families will always have to be prioritized, but if there are funds left over, the county can use them to help some of the families who missed the cutoff.
The San Diego County Child Care and Development Planning Council has formed a committee to plan for the pilot program.
The first step is for the county to study child care need and availability. That alone is huge for the county, Garay said.
“There is no study and there has never been a study of all of our county that looks at need compared to availability,” she said. “So this is really going to give us an opportunity for everyone in the community to understand what the needs are. What is the local status? It’s going to benefit everyone.”
Then the committee will come up with a plan for how to use the subsidy to better meet the county’s needs.
The plan must be approved by the local child care council, the County Board of Supervisors and the state Department of Education.
Garay has one concern. Many of the other counties that ended up with pilot programs had sponsorship from a nonprofit willing to put in some funds to help. San Diego did not.
“So if there’s a nonprofit around that wants to help fund this, we’ll take it,” Garay said.
Both Gonzalez Fletcher and Garay caution that the program won’t solve the county’s child care issues.
“We have a child care issue everywhere and we don’t have enough quality child care providers and preschool providers, but this hopefully will address some of the challenges,” Gonzalez Fletcher said.
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