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New research finds Latino families want preschool as much as others, but big gaps in access remain

Marissa González is desperate for her 3-year-old to be in preschool.

The Pico Union mother quit her job as a special education teacher when her first child was born because she wanted to be at home with her children in their early years. But as soon as they were old enough, she began applying to nearby preschools. She wants her young son to learn from qualified teachers and play with other children.

“I try, but as a mom what I do at home is different,” González said.

She’s applied unsuccessfully to subsidized preschools in her area – they’re all full. And the family cannot afford private preschool.

González’s older children attended preschool, and she hopes her youngest will get a seat next year.

Her experience mirrors both new research findings and unfortunate urban realities.

Research finds Latino children have high preschool participation.

The new research shows that Latino families nationwide are seeking out preschool for their 3- and 4-year-olds. Nationally, two-thirds of all low-income Latino preschoolers attend some form of early education. That's the same as the enrollment of low-income white children, but is less than black low-income preschoolers of whom three-quarters are enrolled.

The new data comes from the National Research Center on Hispanic Children and Families and is based on interviews with over 11,000 families nationwide. One-quarter of those interviewed were Latino families.

The finding that these families are seeking out center-based childcare for their young children goes against some commonly-held conclusions about the early education choices of Latino communities. 

“This disrupts the prevailing idea that [Hispanic] families prefer to keep kids at home or don’t like center care and prefer family based care,” said to Michael López, a principal investigator at the National Research Center on Hispanic Children and Families.

The reports also found that low-income Latino children spend an average of 30 hours per week in some form of early education. Black children spend a similar amount of time in preschool, but white children attend for fewer hours per week.

According to researchers, this is all good news for closing the achievement gap between Hispanic students and their peers.

But the data also show that when it comes to Latino babies and toddlers, only one in three are in a formal care arrangement, far fewer than their black and white peers.

Lina Guzman, director of Child Trends Hispanic Institute and co-author of the new reports, said this might be due to a “potential mismatch between when parents are working and when centers are open.”

The report found that among Hispanic children, one-third are in care during nonstandard hours.  So if a parent works the overnight shift, that is when they need care, and children will be kept at home with them during the day.

Unfortunate urban reality: no seats available.

In Los Angeles, despite high demand, many Latino children are missing out on preschool.

López worked closely with First 5 L.A. as Los Angeles Universal Preschool (LAUP) was being created back in 2004-2005. He said L.A. is not unlike other big cities.

"In a lot of the major urban areas the population most unserved more often than not tends to be the Hispanic population living in poverty," López said.

New York and Chicago also have high populations of Latino children who are not in preschool, López said. Yet, both these cities have been making strides to change that, he added.

In LA, this was the task LAUP took on, López said. He lauds LAUP for bringing quality preschool to thousands of Latino kids over the past ten years. Yet now he fears the problem of access for Latino preschoolers is getting worse.

"There’s been some backsliding," López said, "due to some of the funding constraints."

He is referring to the thousands of LAUP preschool seats that disappeared this year when the organization’s funding ran out.

In fact, said Lina Guzman, based on their report findings, Latino parents would not keep their preschoolers at home if seats were available in places like L.A.

“Everything in the national data that we have looked at suggests just the opposite, that they would in fact sign up,” Guzman said.

López said this loss of seats in high-density Latino areas is worrisome. "I fear that we’re going to see continued widening of the academic achievement gap once these children hit elementary school."

LAUP's funding was provided for 10 years by First 5 LA. It was always known that the preschool grant would end in 2016. When that happened this past June, some seats – funded though alternative sources – were saved. Thousands of seats were lost.

First 5 LA did not make a new grant to LAUP. Instead it changed course, away from funding direct services to strategies that "build state policies" and push for "budget wins that will sustainably fund early childhood education opportunities for Latinos and all of LA beyond the year to year format," said Kim Pattillo Brownson, vice president of policy and strategy at First 5 LA.

It's a long-term strategy, said Pattillo Brownson, with a focus on coalition building. "We heard from legislators how important is was to have all of the early childhood education advocates supporting the same investments strategies," she said.

She said this strategy has already been successful. "The newfound cohesion enabled [advocates] to push for better funding for little kids in last year's budget."

While the L.A. Unified school district has been able to increase its early education offerings to four-year-olds this year, it is still not enough to meet the need.