One local preschool provider remembers the time he had to tell a mother her child could no longer attend his publicly funded preschool because a 10-cent-an-hour raise she received suddenly pushed her over the income cap.
“The mom was so proud. She’d worked so hard for that raise,” said Rick Richardson, president and CEO of a community-based preschool  network in Chula Vista and National City.
Unfortunately, that 10-cent raise also pushed the family over the income eligibility threshold for preschool, which is based on criteria the state hasn’t updated since 2007.
Her child was no longer eligible for a free preschool spot. Richardson had to refer the family to a private preschool provider, which can charge anywhere from $700 to $1,500 a month, per child.
“There was nothing I could do,” he said. “I have virtually no latitude on this,” Richardson said.
The bar to qualify for free preschool is so high under the current system that parents can be forced to choose between preschool and accepting a pay raise. In some cases, a family of four, where mom and dad are both working full time earning minimum wage, already make too much to qualify.
“You can be making $50,000 in San Diego and be just barely making it. Especially if you have kids and especially if you’re a single mother,” Richardson said.
To support working families, San Diego lawmakers and labor leaders successfully pushed for a raise to the local minimum wage – from $10.50 an hour to $11.50 an hour in January 2017.
But one unintended consequence of the minimum wage increase is that more children may be pushed out of free preschool spots.
What it Takes to Qualify
Many politicians, researchers and teachers agree that providing quality preschools is one of the most effective ways to prepare children for kindergarten and a lifetime of learning.
Research shows  that high-quality preschools benefit all kinds of children. For low-income students and those who are learning English, those gains are typically even more dramatic.
“For English-learners, landing a spot in a high-quality preschool is like finding the winning Willy Wonka ticket,” said Richardson.
And yet, every year, across San Diego County, hundreds of subsidized preschool spots go unfilled.
A San Diego Unified spokesperson said no staff members were available to calculate numbers for last year, but in 2014-2015, more than 700 preschool spots went unfilled in the district.
And because those seats are intended specifically for qualifying families, schools don’t offer them to interested parents who exceed the income cap. They simply sit empty.
Jennifer Greppi, lead organizer for Parent Voices , a group that advocates statewide for expanded access to preschool, said a number of factors work together to keep children out of preschool.
Greppi said income eligibility is the most glaring factor, but onerous paperwork requirements don’t help. Parents must provide birth certificates, payroll stubs from the past 30 days of employment and proof of income for everyone who lives in the house. They must provide proof of residence, details of subsidies or any other source of income and notify preschool providers any time an income changes.
Navigating this kind of red tape is annoying and time-consuming for middle-class parents. For low-income parents who lack transportation or move frequently, the burden can seem insurmountable.
And it’s not just that. Undocumented parents might not apply for preschool out of concern that it will count against them in future immigration hearings. It doesn’t, but the fear is hard to dispel, Greppi said.
“People are afraid. They don’t want to hurt their chances if they apply for aid, so they don’t apply for anything,” she said.
But Greppi said the most common challenge has less to do with parents or eligibility and more to do with the kind of preschool options most commonly available.
In order to maximize the preschool funding they do receive, many districts choose to limit the number of full-day spots they offer so they can use that money to provide more part-time spots.
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.
In the meantime, she recommends parents take advantage of Office of Childcare , which works as a free referral resource that connects parents to preschool spots. Agents can also help parents create childcare plans so they can find affordable services like after-school programs that complement what preschools offer.
“We want to make sure they’re prepared for kindergarten and beyond. And we know that preschool really helps their chances of doing that. 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 said.
A Remedy in the Works
One partial solution for parents is already in the works.
Richardson, along with other preschool advocates, supports AB 2150, a bill being considered in the California Legislature that would guarantee eligibility for 12 months so students wouldn’t lose spots midyear. The bill would also raise the income cap, from 70 percent of 2007 state median income to 85 percent of current state median income.
This week, AB 2150 was placed in the suspense file – a sort-of limbo status for bills that would cost public money. The biggest sticking point for lawmakers has been finding consensus on how much the bill would actually cost. The California Department of Education estimated the bill would cost the state an extra $1 million to $5 million a year because it would increase the number of eligible students. The state Department of Finance, on the other hand, estimated that cost would be $30 million a year.
If AB 2150 passes out of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s suspense file, it would be eligible for a Senate floor vote as early as next week, said Evan McLaughlin, chief of staff for Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who co-wrote the bill.
Richardson put together this graphic to show how the wage increase could affect families if AB 2150 doesn’t go through.
The graphic shows a family of four, where mom and dad work full time. The top half shows the current minimum wage for San Diego. The bottom shows what happens on Jan. 1, 2017, when the local minimum wage will rise to $11.50.
“Obviously, the minimum wage increase will have a devastating impact on families in this situation, unless the state changes the eligibility guidelines,” Richardson said.