Cuts to early learning funding leave children without crucial services

Hear more about this story and how it developed on the Peninsula Report podcast.

Preschool teacher Mireya Sotelo with a student at the Migrant Education School Readiness program in San Jose. The Migrant Education program serves families that work in the fields, often seasonally in California’s Central Valley. (Rachel Estabrook/Peninsula Press)

Elsa Pimienta had nearly given up looking for a preschool for her son, Julian. She desperately wanted to enroll him somewhere in San Jose, where she lives. But the $50 a week was too much for her budget, though her husband’s income disqualified them for subsidized preschool through Santa Clara County.

“I put in applications everywhere,” she said, “and pretty much everything was pretty costly and (had) a long waiting list.”

Pimienta knew why finding a good preschool was important, even without reading the recent studies about how early education is perhaps the best way to close the achievement gap between Latinos and many of their peers in the long term. Then, she caught a break. “I found out about the migrant education program … and I said, ‘I’ll give it one last chance and maybe he’ll be able to get in.’”

Julian did get in, thanks to Pimienta’s past work in the Salinas Valley agricultural industry. At the Migrant School, he developed social skills and began to experience a classroom and working with a teacher — all things that Pimienta knows are important to Julian’s development.

Most parents in Santa Clara County are not this lucky. As of mid-October, more than 39,000 families were waiting for access to subsidized preschool or child care in the county, according to the Community Child Care Council, or 4 Cs as it is commonly known. The waiting list has doubled since July, said Colette Kudumu, a 4 Cs program manager.

Last week’s passage of Proposition 30 ensured that K-12 schools will not receive additional cuts in state funding this year. Preschool and child-care programs, however, already experienced cuts by the state legislature over the summer, leaving many early learning providers to cobble together funding or serve fewer children in need.

Service providers across the state saw an 8.7 percent drop in funding this year following similar cuts the previous three fiscal years, according to the California Budget Project, a research group. Larry Drury, who runs Go Kids, Inc. in the South County, said it’s really a 10.7 percent decrease due to trigger cuts made by the state in the middle of the last fiscal year that only kicked in this past summer.

The red dots on the map above represent the early learning centers in Santa Clara County that are affected by cuts in state subsidies. Click on the dots for details.

Go Kids lost about 100 preschool spots subsidized by the state this year. And while the numbers of spots lost varies among Santa Clara County’s service providers, in total California’s preschools and child-care centers can serve 25 percent fewer needy kids in 2012-2013 than they could in 2008.

“There’s going to be more and more families that are going to have to find a way to pay for child care,” Kudumu said. “There’s probably going to be more unlicensed care because families can’t afford the cost of licensed care.”

That creates a major problem for kids once they get to kindergarten, according to Guillermina Gutierrez, principal of the Santee Elementary School in San Jose. “The first day of school when you walk into a kindergarten classroom, you can tell who had had any type of schooling before they get here,” she said. “So if you’re already behind, it will take a lot of individualized work for you to catch up. And because of all the budget cuts that we have had, we don’t have the means to do one-on-one intervention for these students.”

She estimates that about two-thirds of the kids in Santee’s kindergarten classes this year did not have any type of preschool, and most are Latino.

The Santee neighborhood, part of the Franklin-McKinley School District, is one of San Jose’s neediest areas. With decreased state funding for subsidized preschool, national philanthropic foundations have stepped up. But most of these grants are directed towards improving quality of preschool, not the number of children that can be served.

Led by a grant from the Los Altos-based David and Lucille Packard Foundation, philanthropic institutions are investing in a new effort called the Franklin-McKinley Children’s Initiative to improve safety, empower parents with career opportunities and enhance the quality of education in the neighborhood.

Through a national program called EduCare, funded by the Buffett Early Childhood Fund and partnering groups, the district plans to build a 40,000-square-foot early childhood center in Santee to serve more than 200 infants to 5-year-olds and their parents, said Franklin-McKinley School District Superintendent John Porter, Jr. The center should open by the end of 2014 or early 2015, Porter said.

To do that, Porter’s group must raise $12.5 million, and private funding is crucial. “We have about $4 million in the bank,” he said. “We’ve taken grants from several places and we glued them—the grants—together which is the way you survive now.”

But Porter knows that philanthropic funds can only take the district so far. “I think our challenge with the Children’s Initiative is to bring in private business” from Silicon Valley, he said.

The district modeled the Children’s Initiative and the EduCare facility on a program in New York called the Harlem Children’s Zone, a comprehensive effort to support children and their parents from pregnancy to the day the child goes to college. “They get about $5,000 [per child] from Wall Street, from the companies in the financial sector…So [they] have millions of dollars to provide scholarships and we’re not close to that,” Porter said.

Decreases in resources from the state necessitate this patchwork approach to funding early learning. But this still leaves out families like Pimienta’s that do not qualify for subsidized preschool but still struggle to pay for these services.

“Because of my husband’s income—and we were not even that over [the maximum], we were slightly over, but we could not afford to pay,” Pimienta said.

To decide who qualifies, the Educare center will follow the same guidelines that are used for other early learning programs in the state. The difference, Porter said in an e-mail, is that the center will offer extended school hours, year-round learning and other benefits.

Gutierrez, the principal at Santee Elementary, wishes families like Pimienta’s could be eligible. “A lot of our parents work and they don’t qualify. I mean, it’s silly to even think about it because they’re probably under poverty level, their earnings, but yet they’re too rich to qualify for certain free services,” Gutierrez said.

A recent survey by Preschool California found that 79 percent of parents surveyed in the state say there are not enough preschool programs that parents can afford.

The Santa Clara County Office of Education acknowledged this problem in its 2010 Education Master Plan: “Latino students are the fastest growing group of students in the community, yet barely more than a third are able to read proficiently at third grade…In order for Silicon Valley to have access to the qualified workforce it needs, we need to start investing in education now—beginning with early education.”

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