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Shortage of Preschools in Southland Grows

Access: Centers that boost school readiness are far more plentiful in Northern California, report finds. It says family finances suffer.

July 19, 2002|CARLA RIVERA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The availability of space in quality child-care centers is shrinking in some of California's major urban areas, as the growing population of children outstrips efforts to increase access, according to a new study by University of California and Stanford researchers.

There also are sweeping geographic disparities, with preschool slots far more available in San Francisco and other Bay Area counties than in Los Angeles and Orange counties and the Inland Empire, the report by the Policy Analysis for California Education research group found.

Families in affluent parts of Contra Costa County, east of Oakland, for example, have more than three times the number of center-based spots per capita than families living in Riverside County. Los Angeles parents have about half as many preschool spots per capita available to them as their counterparts in San Francisco.

Such imbalances can have broad implications for Southern California and other areas that are lagging, researchers said.

"It keeps some women out of the labor force and has the depressing economic effect of limiting family income," said UC Berkeley professor Bruce Fuller, who co-wrote the study.

Women who took low- or middle-income jobs would probably have little left over in take-home pay after subtracting child-care expenses and taxes, he said.

The report focuses on the availability of preschools and child-care centers as opposed to home-based child care because research increasingly finds that center-based care boosts learning and social development.

"We know that center-based care and quality preschools boost school readiness, and in this regard have we this great geographical divide, with kids in the southern part of the state being less prepared going into kindergarten and first grade than kids in the north," Fuller said.

Funding vs. Demand

Child-care centers recently became the focus of a proposal in Los Angeles County to provide universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds whose parents chose to participate. The plan, currently being studied by a county commission, would use Proposition 10 tobacco tax funds.

Although the statewide number of spaces in centers rose by about 19,000 to 434,000 between 1996 and 2000, little actual growth was documented after adjusting for the state's rising child population. Some areas, particularly Orange and Santa Clara counties--recorded slight per capita declines in the number of spaces available.

"We recognize this is a tremendous problem for us," said Orange County's child-care coordinator Anne Broussard, who was hired recently to address many of the issues raised in the study. "We need more facilities, more trained staff to work in those facilities and more support of families who can't afford child care costs. It's a crisis across economic levels."

Meanwhile, rural areas such as Merced, Humboldt and Sonoma counties saw strong rates of growth in child-care capacity, reflecting a concerted effort to build capacity in traditionally underserved communities, the study said.

In California, which has 3.4 million children under the age of 6, annual public spending on child care (including state and federal funds) has almost quadrupled, from $800 million in 1996 to $3.1 billion currently. Yet, tens of thousand of families--100,000 in Los Angeles County alone--remain on waiting lists, hoping for spots in preschools and day-care centers to become available for their children.

Vouchers Are Blamed

In examining why center-based care has been so stagnant despite rising child-care spending, the study points to the increasing use of vouchers--direct payments to low-income parents for child-care costs--which has expanded sevenfold in California since 1996.

The study said parents have used vouchers to pay for informal care by friends, family members and baby-sitters--in many cases because there are no affordable centers in their communities. Far less money has been spent on centers, which are strictly regulated in terms of staff-to-child ratio.

"Vouchers address the affordability of child care, but for many parents there is no true choice because they can't find a good center to send their kids to," said Shelley Waters Booth, a coauthor of the study and research director for the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network.

Other factors stunting growth of preschool centers include the cost of building and expanding facilities (especially in densely packed urban areas), low staff wages, high teacher turnover and flagging state reimbursement rates, according to the report.

The U.S. Senate next week is scheduled to consider whether to significantly expand funding for child care, which currently totals $8 billion nationwide. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, present funding levels assist 13% of families eligible for subsidized child care, which in California would include a family of four earning $39,000 or less annually.

"In Congress and Sacramento, political leaders have to recognize that finding affordable child care and preschool are problems that all working families face," Fuller said.

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