Silicon Valley has a preschool problem. According to reports released this morning from the Urban Institute, low-income children in the region, particularly children of immigrants, are far less likely to enroll in high-quality preschool programs than their higher income peers. In San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, only 26 percent of low-income 3-year-olds and 61 percent of low-income 4-year-olds attend preschool, compared to, respectively, 52 percent and 74 percent of higher income children of the same age.
Given the extensive research on the positive effects of high-quality early education on low-income and low-income immigrant children, the low enrollment in Silicon Valley is concerning. Through interviews with dozens of stakeholders, the reports’ authors examine the barriers to preschool enrollment, and parse out the barriers that affect all low-income families, and those that are unique to low-income immigrant families. The authors then make recommendations for addressing each barrier.
The research is comprehensive, and the recommendations are solid. But I’m proposing three more ways to to increase low-income immigrant families’ preschool enrollment.
- In funding decisions, prioritize Head Start and California State Preschool Program (CSPP) slots over subsidies or cash-based programs
In their interviews, the researchers found that low-income immigrant families often fear and distrust government institutions, regardless of their documentation status. This distrust often leads to an unwillingness to participate in any government programs, including publicly funded preschool programs.
But the researchers also found that this distrust was more pronounced for cash-based preschool programs, like alternative payment and CalWORKS subsidies. These programs give parents a set amount of money for preschool, which they can spend at certain providers. On the other hand, families placed greater trust in programs such as Head Start and CSPP that do not involve parents in the payment transaction. As a result, low-income immigrant families avoided alternative payment and CalWORKS programs, and were more likely to enroll in Head Start and CSPP.
In the future, additional early childhood funding to the region — whether from philanthropic, state, or local sources — should focus on increasing Head Start or CSPP slots, rather than subsidies. San Mateo county is currently piloting a subsidy program, for example; it’s possible that money would be better spent as a local Head Start or CSPP supplement, especially given the number of Head Start slots will likely drop in the next year.
- Leverage families’ preference for informal kinship care
The researchers found evidence that low-income immigrant families may prefer home-based care, specifically with a relative, over programs operated by a stranger. Part of the reason is because informal care is often less expensive, but these authors and other research suggest cultural bias is also a contributing factor. Informal kinship care settings are generally unlicensed and are lower quality than other types of care. Children who attend informal kinship care are not considered to be enrolled in preschool.
The authors suggest that increased information will help persuade families to enroll their children in other types of care. More information from trusted sources is absolutely a good practice, but it seems unlikely that information alone will outweigh cost and cultural preferences. And convincing families to switch providers is only one potential solution.
Another solution is to increase the quality of the informal care children currently receive — which organizations such as All Our Kin in Connecticut help do. All Our Kin works with unlicensed family and other kinship caregivers to become licensed and provide higher quality care. A recent study found All Our Kin providers produced better results than other licensed home-care providers. A similar organization in Silicon Valley could have a positive effect on enrollment numbers.
- Look to charter schools
Literally and figuratively, charter schools can help with Silicon Valley’s preschool problem.
Across the country, charter schools are an untapped resource as preschool providers, for state-funded programs and as Head Start grantees. California is no different: as few as four charter schools in the state offer CSPP. There are a number of high-quality charter schools in Silicon Valley already, but state policies limit the extent to which these charter schools can offer preschool. Addressing these policy barriers could increase the available supply of high-quality preschool slots in Silicon Valley.
Early education advocates should also look to the charter sector for best practices and ideas. Organizations such as Building Excellent Schools serve as incubators for increasing the supply of high-quality charter schools. And certain cities have increased charter school enrollment by operating unified enrollment systems that allow parents to select the right placement for their child across the different sectors in the city. Both of these strategies, applied to the early education context, could increase preschool enrollment in Silicon Valley.