BERKELEY Just one in seven California parents
can find an opening for their young child at a preschool or
child care center, and that access is shrinking in major counties,
according to new findings to be released Friday, July 19, by
a University of California, Berkeley research team.
Statewide, the number of spaces in centers for toddlers and
preschoolers rose to almost 500,000 between 1996 and 2000. But
after adjusting for increases in child populations in urban
counties, little discernible growth could be detected.
The availability of preschool slots for all families fell in
major areas of the state, including Orange and Santa Clara counties.
The report, "A Stark Plateau: California Families See Little
Growth in Child Care Centers," was produced after researchers
at Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), an independent
research center based at UC Berkeley and Stanford University,
analyzed quarterly data collected by the California Child Care
Resources and Referral Network. The project was supported by
the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and U.S. Department
of Health and Human Services.
"What's so troubling about these new findings is that our early
education system displayed such weak vital signs during one
of the most robust economic periods in California's history,"
said Patricia Siegel, who helped direct the study. She is executive
director of the California Child Care Resource and Referral
Network, the membership association for resource and referral
agencies that serve parents and local child care providers.
The researchers also discovered stark inequities in preschool
access among counties. Parents in Los Angeles County, for example,
have about half the number of preschool slots available to families
in San Francisco and other Bay Area counties. Los Angeles has
experienced only a slight gain of five preschool spaces for
every 1,000 young children (under age 6) since 1996.
This new evidence arrives as Congress begins a debate about
how to reauthorize and possibly expand the federal child care
program. In addition, many states and urban areas
including Los Angeles County Ð are inching toward universal
access to preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds. In California, with
more young children Ð more than 3.4 million under the age of
6 than any other state, other trends will likely
affect these policy discussions.
The U.S. Senate takes up proposals next week to significantly
expand public preschool and child care efforts, now providing
more than $8 billion yearly for low-income and a broader range
of blue-collar families. Present funding levels assist just
13 percent of all eligible families, including those earning
under $38,000 annually in California, according to the U.S.
Department of Health and Human Services.
The White House has proposed no increase in child care spending
in its first two annual budgets. Leading senators are supporting
expansion of child care block grants to states that range between
$5.5 billion and $20 billion in new funding during the next
five years moves that President Bush opposes.
The new report examines why preschool and center growth has
been so stagnant in the wake of rising child care spending.
"Voucher financing of child care, high on Washington's agenda
over the past decade, has expanded sevenfold in California,"
said Bruce Fuller, a UC Berkeley professor of education and
public policy and a coauthor of the study. "But now we discover
that lopsided spending on vouchers has done little to widen
parents' access to quality centers and preschools." Instead,
the rising number of vouchers has boosted support of informal
care of youngsters by friends, family members and baby-sitters,
said Fuller, who also is co-director of PACE.
California's annual public investment in child care has almost
quadrupled, from $800 million in 1996 to $3.1 billion currently.
Yet tens of thousands of California parents remain on county
waiting lists until center slots become available for their
children, according to Siegel. This shortage of preschool slots
becomes even more pronounced when considering the unequal access
faced by parents across California, said Shelley Waters Boots,
a study coauthor and the research director of the California
Child Care Resource and Referral Network.
"Parents' ability to choose center-based care shouldn't depend
on where they happen to live," she said.
For example, families residing in affluent parts of Contra
Costa County, east of Oakland and San Francisco, benefit from
more than three times the number of center-based slots per capita,
compared to families living in Riverside County.
Efforts by state and local officials to expand preschooling
have been outpaced by growth in child populations in some regions,
including Orange County and the Inland Empire region around
Riverside. Researchers pinpointed rising facilities costs, low
staff wages, high teacher turnover, and flagging state reimbursement
rates as likely causes for the stagnation of the preschool supply.
The report is available on the Web at pace.berkeley.edu
or by calling (510) 642-7223. Bruce Fuller can be reached at
(510) 643-5362. Patricia Siegel or Shelley Waters Boots are
at (415) 882-0234.