Income Limits for Subsidized Preschool in California Are Going Up. Will It Be Enough to Help Families?

The school district isn’t the gatekeeper, however. Each year, state legislators set the income ceilings used to determine a family’s eligibility when they negotiate the year’s budget. To make the cut, a family’s monthly income must be at or below 85% of the state median income. Currently, the threshold for a family of four tops out at $ 7,441 per month, or $ 89,297 per year.

The ceiling is about to be higher thanks to a surge in state revenues that’s allowing lawmakers to make historic investments in early education. The latest budget raised income eligibility for families at 100% of the state median income and also sets aside $ 18 million to begin planning the framework for universal preschool.

The idea is championed by state Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino, who wants children to attend preschool – regardless of their families’ income – either in a public school or at a licensed, community-based child care setting of their choice.

“For us to be able to eliminate the income eligibility would be huge for so many families,” Leyva told KQED. “Some people are spending 30% of their income on child care, and then you add to that very expensive housing, and you have families that decide, well, maybe one parent should stay home and usually that is the mom.”

Chris Jean walks his three-year-old son Chase to Oak Tree Learning Center in San Bernardino on May 17, 2022. Chase used to spend three hours each morning at a state-funded preschool before going to join his twin brother Chandler at this private daycare the rest of the afternoon. Their parents were paying more for daycare than their monthly mortgage. The twins are now enrolled in a preschool program funded by the San Bernardino City Unified School District. (Daisy Nguyen / KQED)

An analysis by the California Budget & Policy Center found that, in 2017, just one in nine children eligible for subsidy were enrolled in a child care or developmental program – largely because of lack of funding. The state doesn’t have a concrete number because funding for a centralized waitlist for families waiting to obtain subsidized care was cut in 2011.

Jean earns $ 7,325 a month – just enough to be eligible. But her mileage stipend pushed her salary above the line. She became her family’s sole income earner after her husband, Chris, was laid off from his job at an assisted-living facility during the pandemic. He’s trying to start a physical therapy business, but said the demands of driving the boys to their separate schools and appointments keeps him from pursuing full-time work.

One morning in May, I tagged along as the family prepared for the day. Chase and Chandler ate breakfast and were dressed and ready to go by 8 am They grabbed their favorite toy trucks and dinosaurs before hopping into the family’s SUV. During the 10-minute ride to Chase’s preschool, he played quietly while his chatty brother commanded attention.

Chase spends three hours at the state program located at an elementary school that faces the San Bernardino Mountains, then goes to the private daycare five minutes away. After arriving, he takes a nap and spends the rest of the afternoon there before getting picked up around 3 pm

A man is putting a child into a car seat.
Chris Jean helps Chase unbuckle from his car seat as the father prepares to drop his three-year-old son off at Oak Tree Learning Center in San Bernardino on May 17, 2022. (Daisy Nguyen / KQED)

Chris Jean says the boys’ separate schedules created an inconvenience for the family. He said they get anxious during the transitions from home to school. Twice per week, he also picks them up from daycare and drives to Leaps & Bounds Pediatric Therapy, a ranch 40 minutes away in the city of Norco. The boys get to ride a horse as a form of physical therapy and visit farm animals.

The Jeans say the $ 1,650 monthly bill for daycare is more than their mortgage, but say it has provided the boys a safe place to play and socialize after a year of staying at home to avoid the coronavirus.

They said Chase was making noticeable progress in a preschool classroom of 12 that mixes children with disabilities with non-disabled children, allowing them to learn alongside each other. I observed the students working in small groups to draw the life stages of a spider before moving to a rug to sing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and practice their phonics.

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