Page One

Parents hard-pressed to find preschool openings

Thursday August 30, 2001

By Daniela Mohor 

Daily Planet staff 


As fall approaches, the demand for childcare services traditionally increases in Berkeley. But this year, more people than ever are trying to place their children – and once again childcare providers wish the state were more supportive. 

At this time, dozens of Berkeley families are waiting to hear that slots have opened up for their children in one or another preschool.  

Twenty names are on the Berkeley Hills Nursery School’s waiting list, two dozen are on the Dandelion Cooperative Nursery School list, and 10 families are hoping their kids can get into New School, just to mention a few examples. 

“The demand is higher because we had several places closing last year,” said Suzanne Hagen, Director of New School, a non-profit institution offering preschool and after-school day care in North Berkeley. “So the spaces are fewer for children of age 2 to 5 than there has been in the past.” 

In the span of one year, Berkeley lost four childcare providers, including Dragonfly Preschool, which closed its doors for  

financial reasons last February and Grizzly Peak Childcare. This resulted in the loss of 66 preschool slots and 30 infant-toddler slots. 

However, the shortage of childcare services is not new to Berkeley. It has been an ongoing problem for years that affects the state as a whole. 

“It is a challenge statewide,” said Diane Hirshberg, a researcher at the Policy Analysis for California Education, a think tank based at UC Berkeley and Stanford University. “You’ve got to create spaces that parents can afford.”  

Affordability is indeed the most critical issue, above all in the Bay Area where the cost of living is so high, experts said. 

“When we started in 1973, child care was a family’s first expense,” said Betty Cohen, director of Bananas, a childcare referral and advocacy agency in Oakland. “Now it’s the second after housing.” 

Like Cohen and many childcare service providers in Berkeley, Bananas program director Arlyce Currie believes that the state and federal governments should assign additional funds to early education programs. 

“Parents are paying as much as they can. We need a third payer in order to create more child care and to support the system,” she said. “We need spaces, people to work in them, and we need good quality or training. Right now we’re just struggling to keep up.”  

According to Alameda County childcare coordinator Angie Garling, the county currently has $150 million a year for child care subsidies. It also has a stipend program, the Child Development Corps, funded by Proposition 10 or tobacco-tax money. The program provides a stipend to childcare workers. The purpose is to retain qualified professionals in the field. But these initiatives, said Garling, are not enough. 

“Across the county we have thousands of children and families who are waiting to receive subsidized child care but cannot receive it because there is not enough money,” said Garling. “The funding increased significantly when welfare reform occurred and it has slightly increased over the past five years, but it’s not even close to serve all the families who need it.” 

Garling also said she worried about governor Gray Davis’ intention to reform the state’s subsidized child care programs. 

“One of the possibilities,” she said, “is reducing the amount of money that providers get paid for subsidized care, which would severely threaten the quality of care that children will receive.”  

To Hirshberg, addressing the shortage of child care services is a matter of time. While public schools have existed for more than a century, she said, the United States started realizing the importance of early childhood education for school readiness only three decades ago. It may therefore take some time until this realization is reflected in decision-making.