Tangle of Funds Perplexes Preschool Providers

Friday, March 28, 2008 | Preschool teacher Sharelle Venable tried to coax an answer from the pint-sized students arrayed in a semi-circle around her, one finger pointing to a laminated sheet titled “How Does a Tree Grow?”

“Remember, we were talking about sequence of order,” she said gently. “We were talking about what happens to a tree. What’s the first thing that you have to do?”

A Flurry of Funding

  • The Issue: Funding for California preschool programs is dizzyingly complex, with money flowing from numerous state grants, each with their own restrictions, requirements and a mountain of paperwork.
  • What It Means: Preschool providers find it logistically difficult to weave different funds together, a recognized way to create income-integrated preschools like Poway Unified’s, which delivers services to kids across the economic spectrum.
  • The Bigger Picture: Preschool remains out of reach for many families who earn too much to qualify for state-funded programs, but too little to afford private care.

The tots studied the worksheet intently, surrounded by neat posters listing numbers, letters and the meanings of dinosaur names. Promptly, a 4-year-old answered: Seed the tree.

“Good!” Venable said.

The simple, orderly scene at this Poway preschool belies the complex and often tortuous planning behind classes like Venable’s. Unlike kindergarten or elementary school, preschool isn’t guaranteed free to parents, despite solid evidence of its importance. Funding is scattershot, split between a handful of state and federal programs, each saddled with their own restrictions and requirements.

And a seemingly simple goal — a single preschool for kids rich, poor and in-between — is a bureaucratic Matterhorn, attempted by Poway Unified School District and few other providers. Flustered by the paperwork required for each fund, most publicly-funded preschools rely on only one or two grants, restricted to serving the poorest kids.

The result is a segregated system with free preschool for a fraction of the poorest families, expensive private preschools for the wealthy, and little for the middle. Income-integrated preschools like Poway’s are an exception, made possible with blood, sweat and fees.

A recently proposed law could iron out the intricacies of preschool funding, reducing paperwork and confusion. But the proposal to simplify preschool funding coincides with plans to reduce it. Under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposed budget, state preschool programs will take a $28-million hit next school year, a nearly 6.5 percent cut from this year’s budget.

Statewide, researchers say preschool programs are already inadequate. State preschool funds are available to a range of providers, including school districts and private preschools, which then provide free preschool to eligible families.

But spots are scarce, and available only to the poorest families. For a family of four, state-funded preschool is only available if the family earns $50,256 or less. Head Start, a federal program, cuts off at $21,200. Among the low-income California families who qualify for free preschool, only half of them actually get it, with too few spots available for the demand.

Private preschools are available for wealthier families, who can afford to pay the market rate. In San Diego County, a half-day private preschool costs an average of $6,822 annually. Full-day preschools cost an average of $9,029 — 15 percent of the average household income in San Diego County in 2006.

Stranded in the middle are a wide swath of families, who don’t qualify or can’t access government-funded preschool but struggle to pay for private programs. The California Research Bureau estimated that 53 percent of California’s 3-to-5-year-olds weren’t enrolled in preschool or kindergarten in 2000. In Poway, many middle-class families earn too much to qualify for state preschool, yet too little to afford privately-run programs.

“People think of Poway as this affluent bedroom community, but there’s need here,” said Catherine McDonald, a consultant with the Early Childhood Education division of the San Diego County Office of Education. And unlike school districts in poorer areas, Poway Unified gets little public funding for preschool, she said. “That’s forced them to get creative.”

Paperwork Often Stymies Preschool Integration

Kathlyn Roberts, who directs early childhood programs in Poway Unified, rattled off a list of state and federal funds that make Poway’s classes possible. Preschool experts applaud Poway for “braiding” funds from different sources, feeding a single, standardized program with a laundry list of grants, bolstered by parent fees that are lower than those charged by many private preschools.

That might sound easy. It’s not. For each fund, Roberts fills out stacks of paperwork, before and after. Dollars can’t be intermingled willy-nilly, she said. To keep one fund, Roberts has to ensure a teacher ratio of 10 to 1; for another, a ratio of 8 to 1. Income thresholds vary, restricting which children can be served with which funds.

Other grants place specific demands on parents. One state grant used by San Diego Unified requires parents take literacy classes; another mandates that both parents be employed or in school.

Few other preschool providers brave the maelstrom of paperwork and red tape required to mingle preschool funds, said Molly Munger, co-director of the Advancement Project Los Angeles, a nonprofit agency focused on public policy. Most preschools anchor their budgets to a single funding source, to avoid the confusion of juggling different programs, she said. The exceptions are policy-savvy experts, who trade tips on which funds are easier to marry, and which are nightmarish to attempt.

The funding charade results from a historical hodge-podge of preschool funds, added haphazardly by legislators over the years. Some programs, mimicking the first subsidized California childcares in the 1940s, were meant to support working families; decades later, preschool programs were meant to prepare disadvantaged kids for school.

The tension between those two goals is reflected in the myriad, sometimes clashing requirements imposed by the funds, Munger said.

“If you provide preschool services, you likely have four, five or six contracts — all basically to help low-income 3- and 4-year-olds,” said Scott Moore, senior policy advisor for Preschool California, an advocacy group that supports universal pre-kindergarten. “It’s an incredibly complex system that doesn’t really help families.”

Yet in Poway, Roberts has deftly navigated that system, weaving funds together while carefully delineating which dollars pay for what services. Thanks to Poway’s affluence, she can also charge wealthier families fees. The cost is $5,700 a year for part-time preschool. That’s less than the average privately-run preschool in Poway, where some centers charge more than $11,000 annually.

Those fees furnish 83 percent of the funding for Poway preschools, which now serve roughly 1,100 kids. Roberts uses the state grants to provide preschool for as many students as possible, then sprinkles fee-paying kids into the classes. Kids share classes, but the funds must be tracked and accounted for separately, Roberts explained.

“The grant says, ‘Serve these kids first,’” she said. “But beyond that, we have latitude. We fill in with fee-paying parents. It’s expanded the number of families with true access to preschool. … I tell teachers, ‘Focus on the kids, and let me figure out the nickels and dimes.’”

The result is an income-integrated preschool where all students get the same services, no matter what — or how — they pay.

“The families blend in completely,” said Marie-Claire Abcarius, a preschool teacher at Valley Elementary School in Poway. “If someone doesn’t have a ride someplace, they help out. If someone needs to translate something into Spanish, the bilingual kids help the English-speaking kids. They work as models for each other.”

California legislators recently proposed a law to streamline preschool funding, cutting out the bureaucracy that prevents many preschools from serving an income-diverse array of kids. The bill, AB2759, aims to consolidate the many funds that feed preschools. Advocates from Preschool California say the law would remove the barriers that prevent other preschool providers from integrating their programs as Poway has done.

Less Playtime, More Grooming for School

Mixing poorer and wealthier kids isn’t just egalitarian. Studies suggest that the achievement gap originates long before kids are given standardized tests, in preschool or the lack thereof. And quality counts. Experts find that preschools that groom children for kindergarten are vastly more effective than play-centered care. Some programs have been maligned as glorified daycares, which don’t give the same boost to toddlers as their counterparts in more academically-minded preschools.

As the research mounts, preschools are growing more scholarly. Over nearly two decades as a preschool teacher in Poway, Lori Williams has watched preschools transform. Poway preschools crafted an 11-page list of more than 150 goals that preschoolers should achieve, ranging from “Manage lunch or snack” to “Focus attention on the speaker” and “Begin to distinguish real and make believe plants and animals in stories.”

“When I first started teaching, it was more play-oriented,” Williams said. “Now, it seems that everything we do has a purpose to it. It’s structured, and it’s rooted in research. And parents demand even more than that. They’re pushing children toward higher achievement, at earlier ages.”

Roberts strolled through Williams’ classroom, and studied a boy counting buttons from a bin. Through the activity, he’s learning both numbers and hand-eye coordination, she said. A daily schedule denotes that students are reviewing the letter W; the next day, they’ll learn words that begin with it.

“It’s not just something to fill up their day. It’s deliberate,” Roberts said. “But we’re not just throwing books in front of kids. We’ve still got Play-Doh.”

By providing the same top-notch preschool to all kids — poor and wealthy — Roberts aims to close the achievement gap before it starts. To the south, in San Diego Unified schools, Sylvia Gonzalez is striving toward the same goal.

Gonzalez directs early childhood education programs in the school district, which started “braiding” preschool funds this year. Compared to Poway, San Diego Unified serves a smaller percentage of preschoolers, measured as a percentage of its total enrollment. And unlike Poway, fee-paying families make up a small fraction of Gonzalez’ clientele.

Braiding funds is manageable, she said, but it certainly could be easier. An employee who monitors budgets typically needs a day to do each quarterly report on each funding source, she said.

“And that’s just one report,” Gonzalez said.

Those burdens have dissuaded many preschools from following Poway’s lead, said McDonald, of the county office of education.

“We’ve really created a very complicated bureaucracy,” she said. “That complexity keeps people from saying, ‘Let’s try something else.’”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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