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Outdated Income Restrictions Keep Needy Children Out Of Pre-K Program

Outdated Income Restrictions Keep Needy Children Out Of Pre-K Program

California’s state-funded preschool program is using old income restrictions to keep out many children in need, according to the San Diego Unified School District.

California created its own early childhood education program 50 years ago. The goal was to help working families in need. However, the director of San Diego Unified School District’s early childhood education program says the income requirements to qualify for the program are so stringent that many needy families are left out.

Robin McCulloch, who runs the state’s preschool program for San Diego Unified, said parents are disqualified for preschool by small amounts all the time.


SDUSD Early Childhood Education Program Income Limits

SDUSD Early Childhood Education Program Income ...

San Diego Unified School District early childhood education program income limits.

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“Often times we’re coming really close to qualifying someone, and they are $10, $20, $30 over the income ceiling and they can’t qualify,” she said.

The federally funded school lunch program recognizes some families need more help than others. Some students get lunch for free and others only pay a portion. Unlike the state-funded preschool program, there is at least one income step to help working families.

The California State Preschool Program provides three hours a day of preschool instruction for 3- to 5-year-olds, provided families meet strict income requirements. A family of three cannot earn more than $3,518 a month. One dollar over and they are excluded from the program.

Jessica Cleaver and her boyfriend, Manuel Alvarado, have a 3-year-old son, Oliver, who they would like to send to preschool. Cleaver works full-time as an administrative assistant in the water department for the city of Escondido, earning $3,563 a month — just $45 over the limit. Alvarado takes night classes and works in the electronics department at Walmart on weekends.

Photo by Matthew Bowler

Pictured are Jessica Cleaver and her son, Oliver, in their eastern Escondido trailer home, March 2015.

Cleaver is quick to laugh but she can't wipe the worry from her eyes. They are responsible with money. They rent a mobile home in east Escondido and live paycheck to paycheck.

“I’m really just paying for housing, groceries of course, a little bit of gas,” Cleaver said. “It's hard to cut back. We don’t have TV. We don’t have cable.”

About a year ago Cleaver began to look for a preschool for her son. She said she assumed some preschool education was included in public education.

“Up until recently, I thought it was included,” she said. “It wasn’t until he was 2 that I thought, ‘OK, lets get this going and find out where he’s going to go to school'.”

Then Cleaver realized preschool education is “not free like the rest of public education."

Cleaver assumed the government would be there to help. After all, every politician she had ever heard said preschool education is vital.

California’s public preschool program was modeled on the federal Head Start program. In a statement, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said early childhood education is vital.

“We now know that 90 percent of brain development occurs before the age of 5 years old, which is why early education is so important,” Torlakson said. “Young children have a natural curiosity and sense of wonder that needs to be engaged and developed so they are fully prepared to learn when they enter kindergarten.”

California’s public early childhood education system, the largest in the nation, limits access to families whose income falls below 70 percent of California’s median income. Those who earn even $1 over that limit are on their own.

Cleaver and Alvarado together earn $200 a month over the limit. However, the lowest priced private preschool she’s been able to find is $600 a month.

“And that’s really cheap, and there’s no way I can budget another $600 a month,” Cleaver said.

Alvarado has toyed with the idea of quitting his part-time job at Walmart, but they need that money to make ends meet.

“It seems like there’s no gray areas in this whole situation of having a state-funded thing where I can give Oliver a head start, as they say,” Alvarado said.

The cost of living in San Diego is higher than in many other California counties, such as Sacramento. Housing costs in San Diego are among the highest in the nation. It's almost twice as expensive to put a roof over your head in San Diego than in Sacramento. According to, the average price of a two-bedroom apartment in San Diego is $1,946 but in Sacramento that same apartment will cost $1,096.

San Diego Unified’s McCulloch said families that fall just below the preschool income threshold deserve access to the California program.

“They’re not people who are wealthy or who are even middle-income earners,” McCulloch said. “They’re families with great need.”

McCulloch criticized the state for ignoring working families need for accessible preschool education.

“This has been a long-term situation of neglect and it’s neglect by the state.”

San Diego Unified receives an average of $4,700 per pupil from the state for all of the early childhood education programs combined. However, because preschool programs require a higher teacher-to-student ratio, the district kicks in about $2,400 more to fill the budget gap.

McCulloch said they still need more money.

Photo by Matthew Bowler

Pictured is Oliver Cleaver Alvarez, 3, who would qualify for California's state-funded preschool if his parents earned just a couple hundred dollars less each month, March 2015.

“They give us money, but it’s not enough money to pay the staff that we have to hire to meet the regulatory requirements for a preschool classroom,” McCulloch said.

In the meantime, Alvarado and Cleaver are trying to teach their son what they can.

“We read him books, we point out the A’s, B’s and C’s as much as we can. But you hit these walls, you know,” Alvarado said. “After a while you can't get through to a child because you’re just Dad or Mom.”

Mothers and fathers can have a role in young children’s education Alvarado said. It’s just that they aren’t educators.

“Teachers are teachers for a reason,” Alvarado said.

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