A preschool class at Father Joe’s Villages’ Therapeutic Childcare Center. / Photo by Megan Wood

This post originally appeared in Voice of San Diego’s yearly publication, A Parent’s Guide to Public Schools. See the full guide, including an interactive map and countywide school data, here.

Lee este artículo en español aquí.

To working-class families, paying for child care and preschool can seem unfathomable.

In San Diego County, the average price of full-time infant and toddler care is $17,604 per year, while the average price for full-time care for a 3- to 4-year-old is $11,400, according to the San Diego YMCA Childcare Resource Service, which tracks child care data and helps families find child care. Infant and toddler care costs several thousand dollars more than in-state tuition at UC San Diego. Families with two or more small children get hit especially hard – child care for those families can eat up about 40 percent of the median family’s take-home pay, according to a San Diego Workforce Partnership analysis.

There are several programs that can help parents afford early childhood education. Some help alleviate the costs, others are totally free. The YMCA can help families sort through their options, but parents still need to do work to find quality, convenient, affordable child care, just as they do for TK-12 schools. 

Here is a rundown of preschool and child care support options.

Head Start and Early Head Start


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For families with income below the federal poverty threshold, the federal Head Start (ages 3-5) and Early Head Start (which covers expectant mothers, and children up to age 2) programs are high-quality options with extra supports for family members. Children with disabilities, foster children, homeless children and children in families receiving CalWORKS or Social Security can also enroll. 

These programs are free for those who qualify. The programs are good at working with families to help them determine their eligibility – do not assume you won’t qualify.

Early Head Start is a full-day, full-year program, while the hours and schedule for Head Start preschool programs vary.


Most enrollment for Head Start programs happens in the spring and summer for a fall start date, but interested families should reach to the agency in their part of the county:

  • NHA Head Start – Central: (888) 873-5145
  • AKA Head Start – East County: (619) 444-0503
  • ECS Head Start – South Bay: (619) 228-2800
  • MAAC Head Start – North County: (760) 471-4210

The California State Preschool Program 

This program provides full or half-day child care and preschool for children ages 2 to 5 in families earning up to about $80,000. Tuition can be free or discounted, depending on family size and income. Some state preschool programs are run by school districts while others are operated by community-based organizations. The YMCA and QPI websites can help find state preschool programs near you.

Child Care Vouchers

The voucher program, also known as the Alternative Payment Program, provides child care assistance that families can use for their choice of child care, after-school care or preschool for children up to age 12. Depending on family income, the voucher may cover the full cost of care or it may just cover part of the cost. Vouchers can even be used to pay a family member who is caring for a child. 

Families who have received CalWORKS benefits recently are automatically eligible for the voucher program. 

Other low-income families can also receive voucher support. There are far fewer vouchers available than there are families who need help with child care in San Diego County, but the good news is that the state and federal governments increased funding for the program last year and will likely provide another increase this year. 

San Diego County maintains a waiting list for voucher support. Those with the lowest income on the list when money becomes available are able to receive vouchers. Parents can get on the voucher waiting list at childcaresandiego.com

For more information, parents can contact one of the two organizations that run the voucher program in the county:  

  • Child Development Associates: (619) 427-4411 ext. 1400
  • YMCA CRS: (800) 481-2151

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