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key takeaway

Despite California’s efforts to expand preschool access, many children, particularly those from families with low incomes and children of color, are missing out on these crucial early learning opportunities. The complex early learning system makes it difficult for families to navigate and enroll their children.

Children and their families deserve early education opportunities that promote whole-child development and support overall family well-being. Preschool programs are an essential component in providing these experiences for 3- and 4-year-old children. While California has made significant strides in expanding access to preschool, thousands of preschool-age children still lack access to the state’s early learning programs. This is especially true for many children of color and children from families with low incomes who do not participate in any early learning program, whether it is in a preschool setting or in any other setting within California’s early learning system.

The early learning system is complex, and families are expected to navigate this system and make decisions on early learning options available in their communities. This report shares findings on the number of children served in the California State Preschool Program (CSPP) in the context of the mixed delivery system and equitable access to early learning.

What is the California State Preschool Program?

CSPP serves 3- and 4-year-old children from income-eligible families — children are eligible if their family’s income level is at or below 100% of State Median Income ($84,818 for a family of 2). The program offers part-day and full-day preschool to families who meet certain eligibility requirements — in addition to income, families must meet other requirements to access full-day preschool.1A 3- or 4-year-old child is eligible for full-day preschool if their family meets one additional requirement under the category “needs childcare.” This category includes whether the child is identified as being in danger of harm or neglect, or if the parent is in vocational training, is enrolled in an English language learner educational program, is employed or looking for employment, is seeking housing, or is incapacitated. California Education Code, title 1, sec. 8208 (d)(1). The California Department of Education (CDE) administers CSPP, including allocating funding to contractors.

At the local level, schools and colleges, nonprofits, and local governments offer the program. CSPP is part of California’s publicly funded mixed-delivery system that serves the early learning and child care needs of California families through several programs. In 2022, the entire system, including federally funded programs, served approximately 309,000 3- and 4-year-old children — most of these children are from families with low incomes.2Total enrollment is likely overestimated because families may participate in more than one program, and available data do not provide unduplicated numbers.

How many children have enrolled in CSPP over the years?

As shown in the chart below, enrollment for 3- and 4-year-old children in CSPP has not fully recovered after sharp declines in 2020. Since then, enrollment has steadily increased but still lags behind pre-pandemic numbers. From 2019 to 2022, the program served around 41,000 fewer 3- and 4-year-old children. This trend was particularly pronounced for 4-year-old children. After slightly recovering in 2021, the number of 4-year-olds in CSPP started to dip again while enrollment for 3-year-olds continued to increase — from 2021 to 2022, 4-year-old children in part-day programs experienced the largest drop. 

How many children could potentially be served by CSPP?

Data show a clear gap between the number of children eligible for CSPP and current enrollment levels. In 2022, the program enrolled only 17% of all 3- and 4-year-old children from income-eligible families. Specifically, more than 560,000 children were eligible for CSPP in 2022, but the program served only about 96,000 children. Of the number eligible, 469,000 (84%) were children of color. This gap is partially addressed by other preschool and child care programs serving 3- and 4-year-old children from low-income families. However, even after accounting for other programs, many children still do not benefit from any form of publicly funded early learning services.

What is the demand for CSPP?

Despite the gap in access to CSPP, the total number of available slots significantly exceeds demand. In fiscal year 2022-23, CSPP funding could have served about 211,000 children, but total program enrollment was less than half of the total capacity (100,080 children). The state has made investments to expand the program, such as increasing income eligibility thresholds, but demand is still significantly lower than it was prior to 2020. This means that dollars intended to provide access to preschool are not reaching those families who technically have a spot available to them.

Why might CSPP supply outpace demand?

While there is not enough information to fully understand why enrollment lags behind available spaces, some reports point to potential reasons such as:

  • workforce challenges that limit providers’ ability to staff classrooms;
  • the long-lasting impacts of the pandemic; 
  • 4-year-old children moving to Transitional Kindergarten (TK);
  • programs may not meet families’ needs (e.g., inconvenient hours or location); and
  • families facing access challenges, such as not having enough information about the program.

More research is needed to understand these challenges and target solutions, especially related to how families navigate the system and the factors that guide their decisions.

Implications

The findings presented in this report highlight key implications for policymakers, state agencies, and other early learning advocates. The trends in CSPP amplify continued efforts to expand access for families with the most need. Overall, failure to engage families to enroll in state preschool exacerbates ongoing disparities at the intersection of race and income. Additional implications include:

What can state leaders do to better support families with preschool-age children?

Strengthening CSPP requires policy changes and investments at the program and system level. The 2023-24 enacted budget included significant investments that will strengthen CSPP and other programs in the mixed delivery system, such as provider rate supplements and family fee reform.

State leaders can further strengthen CSPP by implementing changes that center families and enacting needed reforms to support the early learning workforce. Those include:

Increasing participation in preschool is crucial to promoting whole-child development and addressing deep inequities in outcomes later in a child’s life. California is making progress in creating a more robust mixed delivery system that works for families. However, there is still much more to be done to ensure children benefit from these investments. As state leaders consider changes to state preschool and the mixed delivery system, policy developments should be informed by those most impacted, namely, providers and caregivers.

  • 1
    A 3- or 4-year-old child is eligible for full-day preschool if their family meets one additional requirement under the category “needs childcare.” This category includes whether the child is identified as being in danger of harm or neglect, or if the parent is in vocational training, is enrolled in an English language learner educational program, is employed or looking for employment, is seeking housing, or is incapacitated. California Education Code, title 1, sec. 8208 (d)(1).
  • 2
    Total enrollment is likely overestimated because families may participate in more than one program, and available data do not provide unduplicated numbers.
  • 3
    Unused dollars could also be the result of overappropriations for a policy change.
  • 4
    Early Education Division – Opportunities for All Branch, UPK Mixed Delivery Quality and Access Report (February 9, 2024), 36, https://drive.google.com/file/d/1KJjCKg4RwLU7kRVcTwhao3oxbSVfc5Px/view.

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