For 35 years, a beloved preschool program in Escondido called Tiny Tots has been a resource for families.
Parents say Tiny Tots provides a slow and healthy transition into school. The city operates it, so families trust it, and it’s affordable – a rarity among child care programs and preschools nationwide.
But at the end of May 2024, Tiny Tots is permanently shutting down, and the limited number of options parents have for affordable child care in Escondido will soon get even smaller. It’s part of an ongoing destruction of child care options countywide.
The City Council made the decision back in June, despite pleas from parents who said they depend on the program.
But the consensus among council members and city staff was it’s no longer sustainable: The city’s structural budget issues coupled with the program’s declining enrollment meant it no longer made sense to keep it open.
The original proposal was to shut down the program immediately, before this school year started, but Councilmember Consuelo Martinez convinced the council majority to keep it open for one last year.
The program helps preschoolers ages 3 to 6 prepare for school through a curriculum that includes creative movement, social interaction, dramatic play, music, art, field trips and more. It runs through the school year and also offers programs for the summer.
The declining enrollment is partly due to competing programs, like the free Transitional Kindergarten (TK) programs being offered by the state to help kids prepare for kindergarten. TK programs are currently being offered to 4-year-olds through the Escondido Union School District. As we have covered, 4-year-olds are a key part of the child care system, as patchy as it has been. More of them can be in one group together, so the fees their families pay helps subsidize younger kids’ care.
The state’s TK expansion disrupted the already fragile economics of child care facilities.
For some, TK isn’t an option. For others, it’s not a good fit or both.
Escondido resident Melanie Johnson has a 3-year-old son enrolled in Tiny Tots.
“Were he able to go into the public TK program this year, which he is not because his birthday does not fall on the right day, I don’t think that it would suit him,” Johnson said at the meeting. “I don’t think he is ready to jump into a six-hour a day program, five days a week.”
The Tiny Tots class her son is enrolled in is only a few hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays, according to the program website.
As for other private preschools, Johnson said she’s tried a few in the area and they’ve typically cost her around $700 a month for only a few hours a week. But her son’s Tiny Tots class costs about $140 a month.
There are subsidized preschool and child care programs available for low-income families like Head Start, a federally funded child development program. But Johnson said her family doesn’t meet those income requirements and isn’t eligible for them.
Franchesca Spensieri, another Escondido resident, is in a similar boat.
“My son is born outside of the range to qualify for TK and I make more than the standard to qualify for the free preschool program,” Spensieri said at the meeting. “So, my only option would be a private preschool program that would cost thousands of dollars.”
Kim McDougal, executive director at the YMCA Childcare Resource Service, said there are still many uncertainties for families when it comes to TK including age requirements, waitlists, accessing the additional after-school program and the question of whether parents want their child in that type of program.
“It’s moving into the kind of formal school system where oftentimes it feels and looks more like kindergarten than it does like a play-based preschool that’s more focused on social emotional development,” McDougal said. “It’s maybe not the best developmentally appropriate choice for all children. And so, parents lose that choice because it comes down to what they can afford financially.”
This trend of child care and preschool closures is expected to continue, McDougal said, and parents will unfortunately find themselves with increasingly fewer options.
“Escondido is an area that is surrounded by child care deserts within the city boundaries and surrounding the city boundaries,” McDougal said. “So we know that anytime there’s a closure, it’s really difficult for families because there’s not an abundance of care that’s readily available.”
The City Council ultimately decided the program was no longer feasible in the long-term because Escondido has been facing a structural budget deficit for over a decade.
In June, the city adopted its annual operating budget and had to use one-time funds to close an $11.2 million budget deficit. The average annual deficit over the next 20 years is projected at $18.2 million.
Escondido’s use of one-time funding sources has kept drastic cuts to city services at bay, until now. The closure of Tiny Tots will be one of the largest cuts the city has seen in several years.
The Tiny Tots staff and associated supply budget will be transitioned to other operational programs within the Community Services Department, the staff report said.
“This is something that’s been mulled over for many years,” Councilmember Mike Morasco said at the meeting. “It’s something the staff has studied and worked on for an extensive amount of time. This isn’t something that’s been decided willy-nilly.”
He added that Escondido has 38 different preschool options excluding Tiny Tots that families could explore and that the Escondido Union School District takes petitions for special requests regarding its TK program.
City officials declined requests for further comment.