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Income Limits for Subsidized Preschool in California Are Going Up. Will It Be Enough to Help Families?

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A man and a woman with their young child standing in front of a vehicle.
Shirley and Chris Jean with their twins Chandler (L) and Chase (R) at Leaps & Bounds Pediatric Therapy in Norco, on May 17, 2022. Twice per week, the three-year-old boys go there to ride a horse as a form of physical therapy and visit farm animals. (Daisy Nguyen/KQED)

Shirley Jean is an adaptive P.E. teacher whose job requires driving from school to school in the sprawling city of San Bernardino to work with students with disabilities.

She gets a $187 monthly mileage stipend to cover the cost of gas. It’s a drop in the bucket with skyrocketing gas prices, but the stipend became a burden when she enrolled her three-year-old twins in preschool.

The stipend lifted her monthly paycheck $71 above the income limit to qualify for state-subsidized preschool, which kept her from enrolling both boys in the same school. Desperate for a solution, she underwent elective surgery so she could take a medical leave, and lower her monthly pay just once, which would be enough to make the cut for the preschool program.

She thinks the low-income requirement doesn’t take into account inflation in today’s economy, and is keeping working parents from pursuing jobs with better pay.

“How do you acquire generational wealth when you’re set to only make a certain income?” Jean said. “Why are we promoting poverty? Why are we saying like, ‘No, don’t keep going, limit yourself for your kids to go to school or limit yourself so that you can qualify for this program.’”

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Her situation underscores the kinds of barriers lower-middle-class families must overcome to get access to early education. California trails behind other states in offering subsidized preschool, serving just a fraction of the three- and four-year-olds eligible for a program meant to lift their early learning and narrow education disparities.

Jean discovered the complexities of eligibility in the spring when one of her sons, Chase, was admitted to a state-funded preschool classroom run by the San Bernardino City Unified School District. The California State Preschool Program gives priority to disadvantaged children, including kids who are poor, homeless, in foster care or have special needs.

Chase got in because he was diagnosed with a mild form of autism that requires special education. Meanwhile, Chase’s fraternal twin, Chandler, was disqualified because Jean’s salary didn’t meet the state’s definition of low income. Instead, he went to a private daycare.

Two children are playing in a yard
Three-year-old twins Chase (L) and Chandler (R) Jean play together at Leaps & Bounds Pediatric Therapy, a ranch where the boys ride horses as a form of physical therapy and visit with farm animals. (Daisy Nguyen/KQED)

The 35-year-old mother thought the policy put her boys on an uneven playing field.

“The district is helping one child make progress in terms of education while hurting my other child, and it’s based on my income,” she said.

The school district isn’t the gatekeeper, however. Each year, state legislators set the income ceilings used to determine a family’s eligibility when they negotiate the year’s budget. To make the cut, a family’s monthly income must be at or below 85% of the state median income. Currently, the threshold for a family of four tops out at $7,441 per month, or $89,297 per year.

The ceiling is about to be higher thanks to a surge in state revenues that’s allowing lawmakers to make historic investments in early education. The latest budget raised income eligibility for families at 100% of the state median income and also sets aside $18 million to begin planning the framework for universal preschool.

The idea is championed by state Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino, who wants children to attend preschool — regardless of their families’ income — either in a public school or at a licensed, community-based child care setting of their choice.

“For us to be able to eliminate the income eligibility would be huge for so many families,” Leyva told KQED. “Some people are spending 30% of their income on child care, and then you add to that very expensive housing, and you have families that decide, well, maybe one parent should stay home and usually that is the mom.”

A man holding a child's hand head toward a building.
Chris Jean walks his three-year-old son Chase to Oak Tree Learning Center in San Bernardino on May 17, 2022. Chase used to spend three hours each morning at a state-funded preschool before going to join his twin brother Chandler at this private daycare the rest of the afternoon. Their parents were paying more for daycare than their monthly mortgage. The twins are now enrolled in a preschool program funded by the San Bernardino City Unified School District. (Daisy Nguyen/KQED)

An analysis by the California Budget & Policy Center found that, in 2017, just one in nine children eligible for subsidy were enrolled in a child care or developmental program — largely because of lack of funding. The state doesn’t have a concrete number because funding for a centralized waitlist for families waiting to obtain subsidized care was cut in 2011.

Jean earns $7,325 a month — just enough to be eligible. But her mileage stipend pushed her salary above the line. She became her family’s sole income earner after her husband, Chris, was laid off from his job at an assisted-living facility during the pandemic. He’s trying to start a physical therapy business, but said the demands of driving the boys to their separate schools and appointments keeps him from pursuing full-time work.

One morning in May, I tagged along as the family prepared for the day. Chase and Chandler ate breakfast and were dressed and ready to go by 8 a.m. They grabbed their favorite toy trucks and dinosaurs before hopping into the family’s SUV. During the 10-minute ride to Chase’s preschool, he played quietly while his chatty brother commanded attention.

Chase spends three hours at the state program located at an elementary school that faces the San Bernardino Mountains, then goes to the private daycare five minutes away. After arriving, he takes a nap and spends the rest of the afternoon there before getting picked up around 3 p.m.

A man is putting a child into a car seat.
Chris Jean helps Chase unbuckle from his car seat as the father prepares to drop his three-year-old son off at Oak Tree Learning Center in San Bernardino on May 17, 2022. (Daisy Nguyen/KQED)

Chris Jean says the boys’ separate schedules created an inconvenience for the family.  He said they get anxious during the transitions from home to school. Twice per week, he also picks them up from daycare and drives to Leaps & Bounds Pediatric Therapy, a ranch 40 minutes away in the city of Norco. The boys get to ride a horse as a form of physical therapy and visit farm animals.

The Jeans say the $1,650 monthly bill for daycare is more than their mortgage, but say it has provided the boys a safe place to play and socialize after a year of staying at home to avoid the coronavirus.

They said Chase was making noticeable progress in a preschool classroom of 12 that mixes children with disabilities with non-disabled children, allowing them to learn alongside each other. I observed the students working in small groups to draw the life stages of a spider before moving to a rug to sing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and practice their phonics.

The Jeans said they don’t know what their sons are learning at daycare, because parents are restricted inside the facility due to COVID-19 safety protocols.

“I’ve seen Chase grow in areas academically. When he comes home, he’s always sharing something new with us,” Jean said. “I see the growth, where I never really receive that information from the daycare.”

The Jeans believe the income ceiling is squeezing Black families like theirs who are living paycheck to paycheck.

“It’s like, should you go to work and try to work more hours to try to help support your family or just, you know, maintain the bare minimum?” Chris Jean wondered.

The couple met while students at Cal State San Bernardino. Chris grew up in West Adams and his wife is from Compton, both historically working-class Black neighborhoods in South Los Angeles. After finishing college, they decided to settle in the Inland Empire because the region has the lowest cost of living in Southern California.

A man and woman with their child sitting.
Chris and Shirley Jean wait with their three-year-old son Chase for his physical therapy session at Leaps & Bounds Pediatric Therapy in Norco, on May 17, 2022. Chase was admitted to a California State Preschool program because he was diagnosed with a mild form of autism that requires special education. But his twin brother Chandler was disqualified because their mother's salary is $71 above the income limit to qualify for state-subsidized preschool. (Daisy Nguyen/KQED)

Shirley was enrolled in Head Start when she was three years old and said the program helped her get ready for school. Academic achievement matters to her, so much so that she went on to earn a doctorate in health and human performances.

Braces could have corrected her dental issue, but she chose surgery — and lowering her income by taking a medical leave — to get her son into the program.  The budget deal signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last month would have solved Jean’s problem without having to undergo elective surgery.

The situation was so maddening, she went before the school board on May 3 pleading for better access to the program.

“If you decide to get a decent job, such as becoming a teacher, then your children will suffer and not be able to attend school, at least preschool,” she said during the meeting. “I am an educator teaching students with disabilities, but I can not even provide a free and affordable education for my own child.”

Two little boys holding hands.
Chase and Chandler Jean on their first day in preschool on Aug. 1, 2022. They are now enrolled in the same preschool classroom funded by the San Bernardino City Unified School District. (Courtesy of Shirley Jean)

When she was ready to submit Chandler’s application for the state-funded preschool classroom in June, Jean learned the district decided to fund its own preschool classroom. There will be room for both of her sons in school, which started Monday.

Things worked out for the Jean’s, but numerous families are facing similar dilemmas and many more who qualify for state-subsidized child care are waiting for an open spot.

Latashia Kelly, the director of child development programs for San Bernardino’s school district, said close to 20 applicants were in the same situation as the Jeans last school year.

“Having this program for low-income (earners) is amazing,” Kelly said. “However, we’re still leaving out a majority of our population.”

The director of the boys’ daycare said she has seen families give up rather than jump through hoops to obtain subsidized care.

“You have parents that don’t work and get assistance, and they’re going to get all the funding and all the help in the world,” said Melissa Davis of Oak Tree Learning Center.

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“But then you get people that are in the middle like us, where we’re trying to get this assistance for our kids, but the door gets hung on our face all the time because we make this much money. But we’re barely living too.”

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