Parents of hundreds of Petaluma children in need of getting a running start on their education are finding the school doors locked by decreased state funding.
Despite a multitude of studies showing that students entering kindergarten after attending pre-school as 3 to 5-year-olds do better in their continuing education, are more likely to graduate from high school and enter college, there is a startling shortage of pre-school space in Sonoma County and Petaluma.
The need is particularly acute for low-income and non-English-speaking students, whose parents not only need chid care while they work, but whose children need the pre-school education that will allow them to start their formal kindergarten education on an equal footing with other students.
"Studies have shown that preschool education is critical," says Carol Simmons, coordinator for the Child Care Planning Council of Sonoma County, the agency that provides planning and direction for child care in the county. "We know that children do the most learning in the first five years of their life.
"If children start kindergarten behind, they almost never catch up," agrees Susan Gilmore, executive director of the North Bay Children's Center, which operates child care facilities in Novato, Petaluma and Santa Rosa.
Simmons says that last year there were 3,100 children on waiting lists for pre-school spots in Sonoma County. She estimates that the real number, including children of parents who have a need but have not placed their children on waiting lists, could be double that amount.
She says the latest available statistics for Petaluma, from 2009, show that 1,200 children who were eligible for subsidized child care were unable to find spots, and that the number has grown substantially over the last three years.
She observes that in a recent meeting of child-care and preschool providers sponsored by the Child Care Planning Council, the providers reported that, combined, they had recently cut 100 spots for qualified subsidized students, and 15 employees had lost their jobs. "And, that was just from those who attended the meeting," she points out.
The problem, according to providers and local and county officials, isn't a lack of physical space, but continued cutbacks in state funding for subsidized students.
"The amount the state funds for subsidized care has gone down three years in a row," says Carol Castleman, administrator of the Children's Workshop of Petaluma, located at the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds. "We have had to cut staff to the point where there is definitely no more wiggle room."
"We have a lovely facility, and if we had more staff we could take more children, but we just don't have the money." She says the pre-school is licensed to serve as many as 44 children, but currently serves just 25.
She says that if one or both the state tax measures on the November ballot doesn't pass, the consequences for preschools and child care centers could be very bleak.
Simmons says the Child Care Planning Council hasn't yet taken a position on the ballot proposals, "but I've been told a lot of schools could be in trouble. They are already down to the bone."
Gilmore says that state funding for subsidized care has been cut 21 percent over the last two years, and when funding cuts for the North Bay Children's Center nutrition program is factored in, the cut in state revenues is 26 percent.