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Looking for insects at a Kidango state-funded preschool in San Jose, from left, Pollet Diaz, Anthony Olvera, Andrea Olvera, Melanie Garcia and Leilany Escobedo.

Editors Note: In the first of two articles based on a new report by EdSource titled “Early Learning Time: Accessing Full Day Preschool and Kindergarten in California,” we examine the state’s progress in providing full-day preschool and the current financial disincentives to offering a full-day program built into the way California funds these programs. In part two, we will look at full-day kindergarten.

Despite continuing efforts to expand learning time for young children, large numbers of low-income California children still lack access to full-day programs in state-supported preschool, according to a new EdSource report.

The report, titled Expanding Early Learning Time: Accessing Full Day Preschool and Kindergarten in California,” points to compelling research that shows that attending high-quality, full-day preschool is associated with improved learning outcomes for students. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, for example, found that full-day preschool attendance contributed to greater school readiness on four measures: social-emotional development, language development, math performance and physical health.

Since 2014, the California Legislature has made a significant push to increase full-day programs in state-subsidized preschool for low-income children. Senate Bill 858, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed in June 2014, stated clearly that “it is the intent of the state to provide all low-income 4-year-old children from working families with full-day, full-year early education and care.”

During the past three years, the majority of new state-subsidized slots in the California State Preschool Program have been full-time slots. It is the largest state-funded child care initiative in California, providing access to low-income 3- and 4-year-olds in private and public preschools and certain licensed day care homes. The number of full-day slots funded by the program has increased by nearly 12,000 during those three years, while the number of part-day slots has increased by about 2,500.

To underwrite these increases, state funding for full-day slots has gone up substantially, from $453 million in 2014-15 to $627 million in 2016-17.  That compares with a much more modest increase – from $409 million to $447 million – during the same period for part-day slots.

But funding is still skewed toward part-time care. In the 2015-16 budget, the state funded part-time slots for 101,598 children, compared with 62,000 full-day slots.

These developments come against a backdrop of an increasing demand for full-day care. According to the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network, the percentage of parents seeking full-time care increased from 62 percent in 1996 to 82 percent in 2014, a reflection of the increase in parents working longer hours in the workplace.

The term “full day” is something of a misnomer. Under California law, a full-day program is at least 6.5 hours per day, for 250 days per year. A half-day program is at least 3 hours a day, for 180 days per year, which matches the regular school year.

Nina Buthee, executive director of the California Child Development Administrators Association, said low-income working families in particular have a hard time using part-day programs because of “transportation issues and figuring out where to place the child for the rest of the day.” The “balancing act that it takes to survive,” she said, means that although “a part-day program is beneficial for the child, it ends up not being workable.”

A full-day program “allows for much more flexibility with children so they can do the things that little children need to do like dramatic play, painting, circle time with stories,” said Nina Buthee, executive director of the California Child Development Administrators Association.

Part-day preschool consists of three hours of academic learning time. A full-day program, Buthee said, “allows for much more flexibility with children so they can do the things that little children need to do like dramatic play, painting, circle time with stories.” Teachers, she said, have time to not only do academics, but also “to develop the whole child and support children’s social-emotional development.”

Marcia Williams, early childhood services director serving both Amador and Tuolumne counties, said that with a longer day “children have a chance to settle in.” That has all kinds of advantages, she said. “There’s time for children to brush their teeth, time for meals. When we had a short day, they would get picked up sometimes when they weren’t done with lunch. A longer day is more relaxed and developmentally appropriate. We’re not on such a rigid schedule.”

There are also practical benefits for parents, especially in the rural areas her programs serve. “Sometimes parents have to go a long distance to pick up their children from school,” Williams said. “They are more willing to bring their children to a six-hour program. Attendance is better, which is a really critical school readiness skill.”

A full-day program has similar advantages for parents in urban areas. “For working parents, part-day is definitely difficult,” said Dawn Kurtz, chief program officer for Los Angeles Universal Preschool. “By the time you drop the child off and leave, it’s time to come back again. It’s a hardship.” Adding to the difficulty is that many parents don’t have anyone to pick the child up and get them to another place for child care in the middle of the day or early afternoon, she said.

Cultural differences also influence parental choices, Kurtz said. Families sometimes object to putting a child who has had no preschool experience into a full-day program. “If they are at home, they feel the child should be at home with them, so sometimes a part-day program can be a good transition.”

In addition, full-day programs are not always better than part-day programs. “There are some pieces of research that definitely show that there’s benefit to full-day programs over part-day programs,” said Marjorie Wechsler, principal research manager at the Learning Policy Institute, the Palo Alto-based research and policy organization. “But that is not to say that there aren’t part-day programs that are good and effective.”

The push for full-day subsidized preschool slots received a setback this year that advocates hope will just be a temporary one. The state had planned to increase funding for full-day slots for the next two fiscal years, adding 2,959 additional full-day preschool slots in 2017-18 and 2018-19. However, to the dismay of advocates, Gov. Jerry Brown in his proposed budget for 2017-18 wants to pause implementation of this increase, adding no new slots until 2018-19. That would postpone full implementation until 2019-20.

An ongoing, and longstanding, obstacle in the way of expanding full-day preschool is the way the state funds preschools, which provides operators with a financial incentive to provide half-day rather than full-day services. Currently, the state provides $25.06 per day for part-day preschool that lasts less than four hours a day, and $40.46 for full-day preschool ranging from 6.5 to 10.5 hours, which is less than twice the part-day rate.

Only the Legislature can change current reimbursement rates, said Erin Gabel, deputy director of First 5 California, the nonprofit advocacy organization promoting a range of early education services. “There are perverse incentives in the system,” she said. “We have the ability at the state level to create the right incentives. If we truly want more full-day programs, we should be looking at changing the incentives that drive local choices toward part-day.”

Kate Miller, a senior associate for early childhood policy at Children Now, the Oakland-based advocacy organization, said that “it’s pretty clear that we need to raise rates to promote full-day care.”

“If we are striving for quality, we need to pay for the quality we are talking about,” she said.

At the same time, Deborah Kong, president of Early Edge California, which promotes access to early education for all preschoolers, said providing full-day opportunities for children “must be part of a comprehensive strategy” to address children’s needs from birth through at least kindergarten.

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