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A promised deluge of federal stimulus funds for preschools, a major priority for President Barack Obama, will start flowing to centers in San Diego just as state funding is being clipped.
That might sound like a blessing, but dollars from state, federal and other programs cannot be easily swapped to plug gaps. The push-and-pull on preschool money is putting many centers in the paradoxical position of juggling expected cuts with investments in better programs and training, benefiting some families and not others. The fates of different preschools and their different programs will vary dramatically depending on where they get their money, and whether they can find ways to tap the stimulus.
“We are always chasing the dollar,” said David Sheppard, director of a preschool program in the South Bay Union School District that relies on a mixture of state and federal funds. Some are facing cuts. Some stand to benefit from the federal stimulus. “I keep asking, ‘How can we use that money?’”
Despite solid evidence that preschool can have lasting effects on children, even curbing dropout rates and slimming the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and their classmates, there is no uniform system for funding it. Preschools in California often rely on a complex web of funds to stay afloat. There are federal funds and state funds, temporary grants, dollars passed along from school districts and dollars handed down from county commissions funded by a statewide tobacco tax.
Each fund is saddled with rules that limit which families it can be spent on, how many children can be grouped with each teacher, and how the money must be tracked. State preschool money, for instance, is supposed to be used to help families who earn less than 75 percent of the California median income — roughly $44,000 for a family of four. But federal money for the Head Start preschool program has a lower threshold of about $22,000 for a family of four, according to figures supplied by the California Head Start Association.
That means that the families of four in the middle, who earn more than $22,000 but less than $44,000, are eligible for state preschool but not for Head Start. If money is poured solely into Head Start, those families may not benefit from the temporary influx of money. Bolstering one program does not automatically benefit all preschools.
The paradox means that preschools that survive on a mixture of state and federal funds may be forced to cut programs that depend on state funding at the same time they buy new equipment or boost salaries for their workers with stimulus dough. Scott Moore, senior policy adviser for the nonprofit advocacy group Preschool California, summed up the feeling among preschool providers in a word.
“Schizophrenic,” he said.
“It is the strangest time. On the one hand, it is so thrilling to have a president who is passionate about early childhood education,” Moore said, adding, “On the other hand you have our state budget crisis, which is real and must be faced. People are scared. It is very difficult to predict how things will end up.”
Each fund is facing different threats — and benefits — in a bleak economy. State legislators plan to slash roughly $55 million from a fund that pays for state preschool and programs for infants and toddlers, Moore said, leaving between 11,000 and 14,000 preschoolers in the lurch if stimulus funds cannot plug the gap.
State voters will also decide in May whether to pass Proposition 1D, which would grab some of the money from a tobacco tax passed more than a decade ago for early childhood programs, to help fix the tottering state budget. The change could halve the amount of such taxes headed to San Diego County, slashing funds by $17 million annually over the next five years.
Locally, the program has built up roughly $75 million in reserves, but it is unclear whether the state will raid those funds as well, said Lisa Contreras, communications coordinator for First 5 San Diego, which oversees the dollars here. It also hasn’t decided which programs it wants to keep funding in the future.
Meanwhile, stimulus money is flowing to other programs, with the government shelling out $102 million in California to Head Start, $112 million to Early Head Start, which serves children from the womb to age 3, and millions more for preschoolers with disabilities, according to estimates provided by the local commission that oversees tobacco tax money. It is also pumping money into a federal fund for disadvantaged students that has rarely been used for preschool in the past, but could become another pipeline for funding the programs if school districts opt to spend some of the added money on preschool.
That is one hope for the program that Sheppard oversees, which is one of the few preschool programs that benefits from that funding stream thanks to support from the South Bay Union School District. But other parts of his program that depend on different funds, such as the tobacco tax money or state preschool dollars, could be jeopardized, forcing him to reduce staffers or pare back on materials. His program gets no money from Head Start, though he is eager to learn if he can partner with Head Start providers in the area to run programs together.
Sheppard walks from room to room in the cluster of bungalows in Imperial Beach. He watches as teacher Betty Vasquez quizzes one of the toddlers gathered around her circular table about the colors in a jigsaw puzzle, toggling back and forth between Spanish and English with ease. “Good job, Natalia!” she exclaims when the little girl names orange and purple. She gently prods another child to ask nicely for a toy. “May I please play with your alligator,” the boy asks his classmate.
Vasquez’s class serves children who struggle with language or behavior, coaching kids in smaller groups than the average preschool class. Sheppard calls it a “pre-preschool class.” It is also a catchall class for three year olds whose families do not qualify for state preschool. Some came to the class babbling or unable to follow directions; some had seen little outside the four walls of their apartments, Sheppard said. Teachers such as Vasquez immerse the children in language, asking them questions that cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.”
“We ask them about the facts in a story. Even when we play Candyland we ask them to count,” said Claudia Loaiza, a teacher in another part of the preschool program. “If they tell us they have a dog, we ask them what kind of dog?”
Meanwhile, other preschools are preparing for an influx of funds for the federal preschool program, Head Start. Those dollars will likely be used mostly for improving programs rather than for expanding them, said Catherine McDonald, a consultant with the Early Childhood Education division of the San Diego County Office of Education. Much of the money is temporary, a factor that dissuades many providers from hiring new staff or otherwise expanding, and some of it is earmarked for boosting wages to match the growing cost of living.
One local provider is the MAAC Project, a social services agency headquartered in Chula Vista that provides preschool through Head Start. It expects to receive nearly a million dollars this year. Doug Regin, assistant director of the program, said that higher wages could help the agency hold on to staff — a problem that stalled its preschool in the past when too few teachers could be found, he said.
Another is Neighborhood House Association, which estimates that more than $6 million to flow into its coffers this year, including $1.8 million specifically to improve the quality of preschool programs, the rest for salaries. It could use stimulus funds to provide more training for its teachers or to expand its facilities.
Luis Gonzalez, its director of community affairs, said state cuts would not have a severe impact on Neighborhood House preschools. Other providers may be less lucky: The California Head Start Association estimates that 69 percent of agencies that provide Head Start statewide also receive state funds, much of which are imperiled.
“It could be an incredible opportunity,” said Joya Chavarin, a project director for WestEd, a nonprofit research and service agency that is providing trainings for preschool providers. “But you could also be under threat.”
Correction: This article originally stated that Proposition 1D could cut the amount of funding coming to San Diego County by $17 million over five years. The change is expected to cut the funding by $17 million annually over the next five years. We regret the error.