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Next year, San Diego Unified will offer preschool to all families. All families who can afford it, that is.

Earlier this week, Mayor Kevin Faulconer joined Superintendent Cindy Marten to announce a “game changing” initiative to that would expand access to preschool.

Faulconer and the city didn’t actually help fund the preschool initiative, called Pre-K for All. Rather, a district spokeswoman said Faulconer simply came to express his support for early education.

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“The mayor has been a tireless advocate for economic growth in our city and recognizes that access to Pre-K is an essential issue for many families,” said San Diego Unified spokeswoman Jennifer Rodriguez.

District officials have long touted the quality of its preschool programs, but until now those seats were limited to families who meet strict income eligibility standards – which only covers the very poorest San Diegans.

It’s ridiculously hard to qualify – and stay qualified – for free preschool. A family of four, where mom and dad work full-time but earn minimum wage, could actually make too much money to attend free preschool.

So this year the district will try something different. It will open up a certain number of spots to parents who make above the income cap but are willing to pay for a district-run preschool.

Costs range from $530 a month for a half-day program to $1,060 a month for full-day spots. Anyone who makes above the income cap will pay a flat fee for preschool, and pay extra if they can’t pick up their kids until 6 p.m. The annual registration fee is $150.

District officials say that’s cheaper than what parents would pay for private preschools in many San Diego neighborhoods.

According to data from the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network, the average cost of preschool in San Diego County was $9,952 a year, or about $830 a month, in 2014.

And many faith-based preschools – those run out of churches, synagogues or nonprofits – charge even less. (My daughter attends a faith-based preschool and we pay $700 a month for five days a week, full time. Other faith-based preschools are similarly priced.)

Lucia Garay, director of the San Diego County Office of Education’s early education unit, said faith-based preschools are often cheaper because churches and nonprofits receive subsidies that cut down on overhead. Those preschools may not have to pay facility costs, for example. A secretary for a nonprofit might also serve as the secretary for the preschool.

Still cheaper options for cash-strapped families are home-based childcare providers that offer less formal education programs, or even just having family members care for children. One study estimated that 40 percent of California children younger than 5 are cared for in home-based settings.

According to the group Children Now, only about 48 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds in San Diego County attend preschool. But that percentage is more of a best guess, based on census data and enrollment data from subsidized preschools. Nobody actually tracks how many kids attend faith-based or informal types of childcare.

Of course, not all preschools are created equal. One study showed stark differences between instruction provided in home-based childcare from instruction provided in more formal settings.

And one benefit of sending your kids to a subsidized preschool is that they’re more likely to participate in the Quality Preschool Initiative supported by First 5 and the San Diego County Office of Education – a program aimed at boosting preschool quality.

District officials have couched the Pre-K for All initiative as a way to expand access to preschool. But the scope of that expansion will rest on how many parents are willing to pay for district preschools out of pocket.

In other words, the district’s main challenge will be figuring out how to fill its preschool spots with families who are willing to pay for it, when it hasn’t been able to figure out how to fill up the spots it provided for free.

The Half-Day Challenge

Choosing a preschool comes down to more than what parents can afford. It also comes down to what works for parents’ schedules.

Recently, Parent Voices, a group that advocates statewide for expanded access to preschool, surveyed Bay Area parents who were on preschool waiting lists and noted the common barriers.

Jennifer Greppi, lead organizer for Parents Voices, said income criteria, combined with onerous paperwork requirements, were the two most glaring challenges.

But Greppi also discovered that many parents simply can’t take advantage of preschool programs because they’re not conducive to their work schedules.

In order to maximize the funding they do receive from the state, many school districts choose to limit the number of full-day spots they offer so they can offer more half-day spots, and in theory, serve more kids. In 2014, San Diego Unified offered about 960 full day spots and 2,000 half-day spots.

But half-day spots don’t always work for parents, said Greppi. Here’s how she explained it in a recent story:

Part-time preschool typically lasts three hours, so schools can offer one class in the morning and another in the afternoon.

But that doesn’t do much for working parents, who would need to leave work to pick up their child, and then figure out something for them to do the rest of the day.

“For many families, that’s not even an option,” said Greppi.”

Rodriguez, the district spokeswoman, said the district has capacity to offer 3,460 seats this year – about 400 more than last year – and hopes to use revenue from parents who pay for preschool to offer additional spots.

Rodriguez couldn’t say how many of those spots would be half-day and how many would be full-day because it will be based on parent demand and is yet to be determined.

That could mean parents in the middle might have the hardest time accessing district-run preschool programs – those who earn too much to qualify for free preschool, but not enough to afford what the school district is charging.

Despite limitations, Greppi believes California’s preschool system is underfunded, but isn’t broken.

“What school districts really need to do is figure out what parents truly need, and then figure out how to get them access to it. And the only way they’re going to get that is by talking to parents,” Greppi told me recently.

VOSD staff writer Mario Koran is also a fellow at New America California.

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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