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California families face shortage of child care slots

19 July 2002

By Kathleen Maclay, Public Affairs

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 CaliforniaÕs 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 Š are inching toward universal access to preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds. In California, with more young children Š 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 WashingtonÕs 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 parentsÕ 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.

CaliforniaÕs 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 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.