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More preschool seats coming to LA in state budget plan

Is preschool unaffordable for low-income families? At Mother's Club in Pasadena, low-income families receive subsidized preschool. In a "fine-motor" activity, one table of children in the Mother's Club LAUP classroom take shapes and stick them on white paper, then they select tiny glittery beads and paste those on top.
Deepa Fernandes/KPCC
Is preschool unaffordable for low-income families? At Mother's Club in Pasadena, low-income families receive subsidized preschool. In a "fine-motor" activity, one table of children in the Mother's Club LAUP classroom take shapes and stick them on white paper, then they select tiny glittery beads and paste those on top.

The state budget that lawmakers sent to Governor Jerry Brown this week could open up scores of new preschool seats in the Los Angeles area and prompt the re-opening of an early education center – but the gains still represent just a fraction of the high need that remains as many parents scramble to find seats for their children.

The state budget plan passed by the Legislature last week includes $100 million in Proposition 98 funding for 8,877 new preschool slots statewide over the next four years.

When the first phase opens on March 1, 2017, the Los Angeles Unified School District hopes to apply for 150 to 200 of those slots, said Dean Tagawa, executive director of Early Childhood Education at LAUSD.

"This is a step in the right direction," said Tagawa. He said the funding "sends a good message" to the district that it "can continue to expand [its] programs."

Additional funding could also support re-opening one of the early education centers that have closed in recent years. The District has closed about nine centers in the past several years, said Tagawa. There are currently 87 centers listed on the LAUSD website.

Kagawa said the district is still determining what center would re-open, but that it would be a place with the "greatest need," such as the Bell / Cudahy area or northeast San Fernando Valley.

But while the state preschool expansion is welcome, said Robert Oakes with the California Department of Education, but the boost in the proposed budget would still fall short of filling the decline in seats the state has seen since 2008.

There are currently 32,000 slots for toddlers, zero to three in age, a drop of more than a third from eight years ago, according to the Department of Education. 

And last year's spending on subsidized childcare and preschool was more than 20 percent below what it was in 2008, according to the California Budget and Policy Center. That's in contrast with K-12 funding, which has largely bounced back.

Locally, LAUSD currently serves about 10,000 students in full-day early education programs, but close to 33,000 eligible preschoolers throughout L.A. County are not enrolled, said Tagawa. Advocates have highlighted the lack of access to preschool as an ongoing problem for families for the past several years.

"We need to do more," said Celia Ayala, the CEO of Los Angeles Universal Preschool, or LAUP. Ayala said she generally supports the plan, calling it a "landmark budget package" that preserves transitional kindergarten and raises critical reimbursement rates for providers. But she said a long-term solution is needed.

"To maintain a quality program, you can't continue to band-aid things together," said Ayala. "You need a solid foundation and, therefore, constant funding that will support that infastructure."

Governor Brown has until the end of the month to approve the budget. The new fiscal year begins on July 1.