Photo: Caroline Silber for Strategies for Children
Photo: Caroline Silber for Strategies for Children

California has plenty of sunshine, beaches, and cable cars, but not enough children in preschool.

More than 33,000 4-year-olds from low-income families and some 137,000 3-year-olds “are not enrolled in any of the publicly-funded school readiness program for which they are eligible,” according to a new policy brief — Unmet Need for Preschool Services in California: Statewide and Local Analysis — from the American Institutes for Research (AIR).

“California is home to more young children than any other state in the nation, and we are missing an opportunity to reduce achievement gaps when they are best addressed – before children start kindergarten,” Deborah Kong, the president of the advocacy organization Early Edge California, said in a press release. “The high number of unserved children shows state policies and investments must catch up to their unmet needs. Policymakers should consider the children and families behind the statistics in this report, and increase investments in quality early education.”

The policy brief’s analysis also factors in California parents’ demand for preschool by examining participation rates in Oklahoma and New Jersey’s preschool programs and making appropriate adjustments to the data.

An EdSource article about the brief says, “Between 2008 and 2013, the report said, California cut early education funding by $984 million and eliminated 110,000 childcare and preschool slots. Early education advocates said the report’s findings showed the state’s spending in early education remains far behind what it needs to be, despite restoring 23,827 preschool slots in the last two years.”

The unmet preschool need exists in rural areas and in cities:

“When looking at the percentage of eligible students served, two small, rural counties (Sierra, Mariposa) are among the five counties with the greatest unmet need. This may be because many rural counties have high rates of poverty. Many of the children in rural areas also have two or more risk factors for poor health and development, including low maternal education, family poverty, and English learner status. Compounding these risk factors in rural areas is the challenge of providing early care and education services where distances between homes and center-based programs are great, access to higher education for child care providers is limited, and transportation is expensive.”

The report adds:

“However, urban areas—e.g., counties such as Los Angeles and San Bernardino—have the largest number of eligible children who are unserved. It is easier to efficiently provide services to children in urban areas as children live closer to each other, but transportation and parental work hours may nonetheless make it difficult to accommodate family needs.

“It is notable that four counties—Sacramento, Ventura, Orange, and Tulare—rank among the counties with both the highest percentage and the highest number of unserved eligible children. These counties may be the highest priority for creating new State Preschool Program slots.”

What actions can California take?

“Let’s match ECE policies with needs of children!” Bryan Ha tweeted last week. He’s a senior policy associate at United Ways of California. (To see more tweets, Google the policy brief’s hashtag #NeedforPreK.)

The brief provides specific policy recommendations, including:

• “The state might consider a formula that factors in both criteria for unmet need—number and percentage of eligible children not currently enrolled—when allocating new slots,” and

• “The state should continue to increase resources for the State Preschool Program, even with the expansion of TK [transitional kindergarten], so that more children have the advantage of two years of high-quality early childhood education.”

A proposed law, “AB 2660 – The Quality Early Education and Development Act of 2016,” would “establish a concrete plan and a timeline for California to provide quality preschool opportunities to all children from low-income families,” according to Early Edge California.

California isn’t alone in its unmet need. Here in Massachusetts, the state waiting list for income-eligible subsidized early education and care hovers around 15,000 young children (ages birth to 5). On the local level, Strategies for Children estimates that there are 10,000 preschool-age children who are unenrolled but likely to enroll in the 13 communities currently implementing state-funded preschool planning grants.

And last year, a U.S. Department of Education report presented a national snapshot of unmet preschool needs, explaining that nationally “59 percent of 4-year olds – or six out of every 10 children – are not enrolled in publicly funded preschool programs through state preschool, Head Start, and special education preschool services… Even fewer are enrolled in the highest-quality programs.”

Why should California and other states act now?

As the California policy brief explains, “Interest in providing access to quality preschool programs is grounded in three realities: 1) California’s school children are falling behind on many educational standards, 2) the children who start school behind tend to stay behind, and 3) quality early learning programs have been found to promote school readiness, with the greatest impact among disadvantaged children.”

By expanding access to pre-K, California could better prepare more of its youngest residents for school and college and a lifetime of success.