The morning clouds had yet to burn off, but the line of anxious moms and dads already stretched out the door and past the playground at Valencia Park Elementary. They came loaded with forms and documents — birth certificates, electricity bills, vaccination records — hoping to score a free spot in preschool. “Number 10!” a woman called out, ushering a young couple inside.

Inside a crowded classroom, copying machines hummed as assistants copied forms and clerks weighed their fates. They go through four reams of paper each day, copying each and every sheet. “This? This is slow,” said community assistant Blanca Mendez, when asked about the growing line.

One mother in a black baseball cap couldn’t provide any paychecks. She told the clerk, Claudia Garcia, that nobody in her family worked. Garcia was skeptical, asking how they got by. Slowly the truth came out. The mom did have a job and was making some money. Garcia broke the bad news, which the mother already suspected: She made too much to get into the program.

“That’s just how it works for state preschool,” Garcia said before showing her to the door.

When a child turns five, they have a right to go to kindergarten. Free of charge. But preschool is a privilege, despite solid evidence that early schooling can help narrow the achievement gap between wealthy children and their poorer classmates. Only a handful of states offer free preschool to everyone and fewer actually fund it; California voters rejected the idea of universal preschool four years ago.

The result is that right now, preschool is a luxury for those who are rich enough to easily afford it, charity for those who are poor enough to deserve it, and a headache for those stuck in between.

“It stresses me out. I want my daughter to go to school,” said Jen Ott, a military mom waiting to see if her daughter qualifies at a South County preschool. Her preschool has to petition the state to not count her military housing allowance as income. “They should just take whoever, regardless of income. They ask repetitive questions over and over. How many times have I got to put my phone number on each piece of paper?”

There are a slew of different programs for preschoolers, but each is saddled with a different set of rules about who can get in. Head Start, a federally funded preschool program, has the strictest income rules. A family of four needs to earn $22,050 or less to qualify, even in states like California with a high cost of living. State preschools can cover children whose families who make roughly twice as much.

Sometimes preschools have spots for people who earn more, but only if no poorer families sign up. Norma Johnson at the Neighborhood House Association, a social services agency that runs Head Start programs, says that rarely happens.

And getting into a program doesn’t always mean a family will stay in if their income later rises. Kids can bounce in and out of some programs if their parents rely on on-and-off work.

Even if a family is unquestionably eligible, there is no guarantee they’ll get a spot. State preschools rank families based on their income; foster and homeless kids jump to the top of the list. Right now, more than 18,000 preschoolers are on a countywide waiting list. The problem exists across California: Last year, a Rand Corp. study concluded that less than half of California preschoolers eligible for Head Start or state preschool could actually be enrolled.

And then there are the people who don’t make the cut for state programs, but still can’t afford private preschool, which can cost between $600 and $1,100 a month in San Diego County.

“They may not meet the criteria — but that doesn’t mean they’re well off,’” said Lynn Karoly, a senior economist with the Rand Corp.

For instance, a family with two parents and two kids that earns $51,000 — well under the regional median income of $73,000 — would likely be shut out of state preschool. They would have to fork over between 16 and 30 percent of their income to get into a private preschool, or not get preschool at all.

One program is trying to change that. First 5 San Diego fosters early childhood programs through a state tobacco tax approved by voters and funds Preschool for All, which pays for free preschool regardless of income. Barbara Jimenez, executive director of First 5 San Diego, said that will provide preschool to 1,080 children this year who wouldn’t otherwise get it.

But with limited funds, those programs only exist in some areas and only go so far in filling the gap. Just half of San Diego three- and four-year-olds were in preschool, according to family surveys gathered two years ago by First 5 San Diego. That gap could have big consequences: Scholars say preschool is far more than just a place to park the kids. Children who go to good preschools come to kindergarten already further ahead, primed for reading, math and science through story time, building blocks and the sandbox.

The unmet demand for preschool also means parents must be willing to brave a sea of paperwork to get it. V.I.P. Village, one of the county’s biggest public preschools, requires most families to show birth certificates for every child in the house (to verify family size), two consecutive pay stubs or bank statements (to check income), and proof of residence (a rental receipt or current utility bill) — a rule that sends some parents running to pay the overdue gas bill — along with dozens of other forms.

Director David Sheppard has even visited homes to check if kids actually live there or are just listing a fake address. Preschool operators are under added pressure to check closely after a federal audit this spring found that Head Start workers in several states misrepresented earnings to help families get in.

“It could be simpler,” said Sonia Abdul, trying to enroll her three-year-old son at V.I.P. “But I write quickly.”

Sheppard is still amazed by the process. “I’m surprised they don’t throw their hands up and walk out,” he said. “Sometimes they get upset — but they always come back.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at and follow her on Twitter:

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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