The trouble came to Noemi Zermeno in an envelope. She spotted it when she was dropping off her three kids at their Linda Vista preschool, tucked into the binder where she signs them in and out.

“I started panicking,” she said.

The single mom can see the preschool from her front door. She had just moved to the little beige duplex across Jewett Street, wanting to live closer to the school she and her children adore.

Now that preschool was out of reach. The letter in that envelope tipped her off: California had cut Zermeno out of public preschool, saying she made too much money. And with three kids to care for, Zermeno discovered that even the cheapest private preschools would chew up half of her paychecks as a dental assistant.

So Zermeno made a choice: She cut back her hours to make sure she could stay in public preschool. The new rules say that families of four cannot make much more than $3,900 a month. Zermeno has to count her hours carefully every week.

There is a boom in national buzz about preschool, bolstered by stacks of studies that show a good preschool can get stunning results much later in life. Less crime. Fewer dropouts. More success.

At the same time, a broke California is shutting out thousands of children from preschool. More than 25,000 out of 240,000 spots in public preschools and other child care programs are expected to disappear this year, the Oakland nonprofit Children Now estimates.

Half of the toddlers who scrawl their names and practice animal sounds with smiling teachers will disappear from the Linda Vista preschool that Zermeno can see from her front door, the Jeff and Deni Jacobs Child Development Center.

Cozy rooms full of jigsaw puzzles and kiddie furniture will be mothballed in the hopes that funding will bounce back and let them reopen again.

“It’s absolutely heartbreaking,” said Celine Krimston, vice president of programs for Educational Enrichment Systems, the nonprofit that runs the Linda Vista site and many other preschools. She thinks it will cost the state in the long run. “I wish Sacramento could show us their math.”


Photo by Sam Hodgson
At the Jeff and Deni Jacobs Child Development Center, preschoolers Isaec Gonzalez and Cory Wright joke with each other while learning to spell their names. The National Institute for Early Education Research stresses that a good preschool involves a lot of chatter, creativity and play.

The old joke about “all I really need to know I learned in kindergarten” may not be such a joke after all when it comes to preschool. Back in the ‘60s, researchers decided to follow a crop of disadvantaged Michigan children to adulthood. Some went to an excellent preschool and others didn’t go to preschool at all.

It ended up being one of the most famous education experiments ever done. Decades later, researchers found that as the Michigan preschoolers grew up and became adults, they were more likely to graduate, less likely to turn to crime and half as likely to go on welfare as the kids who didn’t go to preschool.

All in all, the Michigan study estimated that for every dollar spent on the preschool program, the public saved sixteen dollars in welfare, court costs and taxes. Other studies have found that kids who go to good preschools are less likely to be labeled with a disability, less likely to repeat a grade, and more likely to ace state tests. Quality preschools seem to prime children for school and life in enduring ways.

Those hefty results may seem surprising for something that looks so little like studying.

Walk into the preschool that Zermeno sacrificed to keep her children in and you’ll see burbling four- and five-year-olds mashing clay and riding tricycles. Kids peel and paste animal stickers. One whinnies like a horse.

“It’s a little secret that they’re learning,” joked director Patricia Smith as she circled a colorful classroom lined with seedlings and picture books. “We just don’t tell them!”

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Smith points out some of the things they’re picking up. Shapes and colors. Fine motor skills. Recognizing letters. Children from poorer homes are often exposed to far fewer words than their better-off-classmates. So good preschools soak children in language. The Linda Vista teachers constantly question their tiny students about their animal stickers: How many cows do you have? What color is your chicken? What do the pigs say?

That isn’t idle talk. The National Institute for Early Education Research stresses that a good preschool does not mean lots of lectures or worksheets but chatter, creativity and play. It points to brain research that shows the gentle back-and-forth between a child and an adult helps their mind expand.

“It’s not sitting there watching TV and eating Froot Loops for breakfast,” said Arnulfo Manriquez, president and CEO of the Chicano Federation, which runs preschool programs in San Diego County.

That may be why the best results come from preschools with fewer children per teacher, lots of small group activities and one-on-one attention. It also helps to have educated teachers who understand how children learn — and what to do to nudge them along — instead of just babysitting.

And experts believe the results of preschool are not just tied to ABCs and 123s. They tout preschools that explicitly teach personal skills like taking turns, sharing and following directions that seem to pay off much later in life in better decisions like avoiding crime and waiting to have kids.

“We can actually train teachers to teach these things,” said W. Steven Barnett, co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research.

Barnett argued that even Simon Says is more than a silly game. It teaches children to control their behavior when someone else asks them to. That skill still matters later, Barnett explained: Do you smack the kid who bumps into you? If you are struggling with reading, do you stick with it and try again?

Those life lessons play out in little ways at the Linda Vista preschool.

One tiny girl scolded her classmate when he didn’t put his extra stickers back. “You have to put it in the tub.” The little boy pulled the tub close to him and far from her. “No! Not there! Put it in the middle!” she exclaimed.

Please. Please put it in the middle,” teacher Carol Brewer reminded her.

Back across the street, Zermeno recounts the changes she has seen in her oldest son. At age four, he used to babble incomprehensibly, so much so that he went into speech therapy. Zermeno would struggle to understand him and he would grow upset.

At the Linda Vista preschool, his language unfurled. Now at five he plays teacher to his little sister.

“He’ll say, ‘Christina, don’t fight. Get in line. It’s not your turn yet,’” Zermeno says with a smile.


Photo by Sam Hodgson
Because of budget cuts, the Jeff and Deni Jacobs Child Development Center will serve half as many kids this year as it did last year. This classroom will be mothballed in the hopes that funding will bounce back.

Preschool is getting a lot of love in Washington, D.C.

The Obama administration just offered up millions of dollars to states for amping up preschool. It’s the newest round in a hotly contested competition called Race to the Top. The idea is to nip the achievement gap in the bud by ensuring that all children are geared up for kindergarten and ready to learn.

For preschool boosters, it is a proud sign that early education is no longer seen as babysitting. Presidents have talked up funding for preschool before. This is different. Obama is talking about quality: more training for preschool teachers, better coordination to make sure preschools lead seamlessly into kindergarten, and new ways to evaluate them so parents can choose the best ones.

But while states from Alabama to Wyoming are gearing up preschool plans to wow the feds, California is cutting preschool back. It isn’t even sure if it will bid for the preschool round of Race to the Top, leery of taking on new programs and costs that could be unsustainable once federal money dries up.

California slashed budgets for preschools and child care centers by 11 percent or more this year. It upped the income bar for families to get free preschool, pushing out parents on the edge like Zermeno. Preschool used to be open to families of four earning a little more than $50,000. Now that cutoff is shy of $47,000.

And preschool and child care used to be covered by a law that ensures schools get a minimum chunk of the state budget. Now almost all kinds of programs for the littlest children have been kicked out of that safe haven, except for part-day preschool.

In California, the state signs contracts with nonprofits, licensed homes and school districts to provide public preschool. It also gives out vouchers.

Roughly half of small children in California come from families poor enough to get public preschool. Even if a family is eligible, there is no guarantee they’ll get in because there are only so many spots. Families that make more usually have to pay for private preschool on their own. Not all can afford it.

Elementary schools often handle budget cuts by bloating class sizes, so that fewer teachers are needed for the same number of kids. But preschools must keep down their child-to-adult ratios to meet state rules.

So they cut both kids and teachers.

“The federal government is talking about high-quality early childhood education. Data development. Quality rating systems. They are lofty goals that we would all love to adhere to,” said Nancy Remley, who works in the child development division of the California Department of Education. “But California is probably struggling more than any other state” because of its massive deficit.

Preschool administrators Krimston and Smith are used to scrimping.

Last year they temporarily slashed salaries to survive while state funding was delayed. They write with pencil on sticky notes so they can erase and reuse them. Smith reminds the children to use just one paper towel to dry their hands.

But this year was the worst: Educational Enrichment Systems is cutting the number of children it serves countywide from 1,300 to 1,100. The Linda Vista site was hit especially hard because it lacked the kind of outside funding that helped cushion the blow at some other preschools.

Preschools all over the county are shrinking. The Chicano Federation had to downsize its infant and toddler program from 600 tots down to roughly 500. North County Community Services estimates it will have to trim back almost 150 spaces out of 700, closing down classrooms and shortening its hours.

The blow follows years of growth. “We just made some gains and now they’re all being taken away,” said Doug Regin, assistant director of MAAC Project Head Start, which runs preschools in North County.


Photo by Sam Hodgson
A boy goes headfirst down the slide at the Jeff and Deni Jacobs Child Development Center.

California is already seen as a bit of a laggard when it comes to its littlest learners. Child care centers and preschools can be inspected just once every five years. Preschool teachers do not need to earn a college degree. And there is no system to rate preschools so parents can choose the best ones.

There have been glimmers of progress, like setting new standards for what children should learn in preschool. But now the state seems to have backed away. The most obvious reason is money.

The other reason is political heft. Preschool is hampered by the complex and decentralized nature of the preschool system. It is run through a dizzying number of different programs that are harder to round up and unite. Preschools are not always tied in to the established networks that fight for schools.

The people who rely on it most — poor single parents — are not a politically powerful bloc. And it doesn’t help that the last attempt at universal preschool failed at the ballot box five years ago. Preschool is something almost everyone in the education world agrees on and nobody has gotten done.

“I don’t think anybody in California has been resisting preschool,” said David Kirp, a public policy professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Coalitions and foundations have sprung up, but Kirp argued that no California governor has really taken it on. “There’s been no champion.”

Emily Alpert is the education reporter for What should she write about next? Please contact her directly at

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Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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