An Unfair Head Start

California Families Face Gaps in Preschool and Child Care Availability
Bruce Fuller
University of California, Berkeley
Casey Coonerty
University of California, Berkeley
Fran Kipnis
California Education Partners
Yvonne Choong
California Medical Association


This report details stark inequities in how preschool and childcare opportunities are distributed among four California counties, across communities situated within these counties, and among the state's 200 localities with the most families receiving welfare benefits.

Despite spending $1.2 billion each year on preschool and childcare programs, no single state agency has been able to assess the overall supply of these programs or the distribution of supply. Over half of California's 3.3 million preschool-age children (age 0–5 years) live in households with a working mother. Half these youngsters are enrolled in a licensed preschool, center, or family childcare home, or cared for by someone other than kin. Thousands of additional youngsters are enrolled in preschool programs, independent of their mother's job status. We use the terms preschool and center synonymously; some offer only half-day educational programs.

Early in 1997, uniform data finally became available on the state's 8,831 licensed preschools and 30,730 family childcare homes. Together, these organizations serve almost 800,000 children in California. Our analysis reveals these patterns:

  • A family's opportunity to enroll their youngster in a preschool or childcare program depends largely on their income and where they live. In some counties, most notably Los Angeles, affluent parents are twice as likely as those residing in poor areas to find a preschool or childcare slot in their community. These odds are just slightly better for blue-collar and many middle-class children.

  • Counties vary enormously in their supply of early education and childcare programs. For instance, preschool supply levels in the poorest communities of San Francisco and Santa Clara counties are equal to average supply levels observed in the wealthiest communities of Los Angeles county. Looking only at the state's poorest areas, such cross-county disparities also are apparent. Alameda county, for example, has four times the number of slots in family childcare homes (per capita) than Los Angeles county.

  • Only San Francisco has been able to de-link family income from local availability of preschool and childcare programs. Other counties with high average supply, such as Santa Clara county, display unequal availability of preschool and child-care supply between affluent and poor communities.

  • Latino children are hit hardest by this disparity in early education opportunities. Lower supply is apparent even after taking into account indicators of need or demand, such as Latina mothers' lower average rate of employment. Among the state's poorest communities, preschool supply in predominantly Latino areas is half the average supply observed in low-income Black or Anglo communities; the supply of slots in family childcare homes is just one-third the average supply level observed in poor black or white communities. This gap in availability for Latino children exists even in counties with more ample supply overall, including San Francisco and Santa Clara counties.

Suggested citationFuller, B., Coonerty, C., Kipnis, F., & Choong, Y. (1997, November). An unfair head start: California families face gaps in preschool and child care availability [Report]. Policy Analysis for California Education.