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Funding for 11,000 free preschool seats may disappear in 2016

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A change in direction by a major funder of subsidized preschool spaces in Los Angeles County may leave 11,000 low-income families scrambling for child care in two years.

The Board of Commissioners of First 5 LA, the nonprofit that advocates for children 0 to 5 and funds health and early education programs from tobacco tax revenue, met in mid-November and approved a new strategic plan. The plan deemphasized direct services such as subsidized preschool slots, resulting in no new funding contract for Los Angeles Universal Preschool, which has provided thousands of free preschool seats for 4-year-olds since 2004 with First 5 LA support.

LAUP's current contract with First 5 LA runs through June 30, 2016. Thus far, LAUP has no committed funding to replace the monies from First 5 LA.  

While executives at both organizations and key stakeholders have known for many months now that the funding would not be renewed, the move surprised parents and some child care providers who are just learning that they might not have the preschool spaces when the LAUP’s contract ends.

Over nine years, LAUP preschools have educated about 100,000 4-year olds across the county. LAUP made its mark with a unique model that stresses quality care, teacher improvement and a performance rating system for providers.

Preschool sites are given financial incentives to meet quality benchmarks that result in better care in child care settings. The highest rating — a five-star preschool — will have teachers with a bachelor's degree and a master teacher permit. LAUP also provides free coaching to its preschool providers to help them improve and achieve higher quality ratings.

LAUP’s preschool model has gained national attention. Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently commended the organization as a leading provider of quality preschool in Los Angeles County.

Kim Belshé, executive director of First 5 LA, acknowledged the success of LAUP preschools. But she said First 5 LA has a new mandate from its commissioners on how to spend its money.

“To help the most children possible over a long period of time, it's not going to be by funding discrete services that benefit only the handful of kids that are fortunate enough to participate. Rather impact is really going to be through policy and systems change,” she said.

Focusing on those changes First 5 LA can impact public policy to better provide preschool to more children, she said. Belshé also said First 5 LA will be focusing on the very early years of children and programs that support parents, who she described as child’s first teachers and strongest advocates.

First 5 LA's new five-year strategic plan was developed in partnership with the early childhood community and takes effect in July 2015.

All of First 5 LA grantees know that they are expected over the course of their contract years to find other sources of funding. When agreements expire, new funding should be in place to keep the work going, according to the organization.

“This is not about First 5 LA undoing existing commitments or obligations,” Belshé said. “It’s really about how do we focus our work for the future to contribute to the most change possible for most young children in L.A. County.”

LAUP initially received a $580 million contract covering 2004-2009 to launch and run its preschool program. The contract was then renewed and extended by First 5 LA to run until 2016, but no additional funding was attached to the extension.

“First 5 LA supported the creation of LAUP back in 2004 with the expectation that it would become sustainable at the end of First 5 LA’s allocation,” Belshe said.

With 18 months left on its contract, LAUP has not secured funding to continue paying for the 11,000 slots in the 2016 school year. 

“There was no way that we could raise $80 million a year,” said Celia Ayala, LAUP's CEO. “That is just not going to happen from a nonprofit without having 20, 30 years of work doing that.”

Ayala says it was impossible to raise money during the recession when statewide funding to early education was slashed. Over 100,000 subsidized child seats were lost due to state budget cuts from 2008-2011.

More recently, Ayala said, asking donors for money when LAUP already had a large multi-million dollar contract didn't yield much. 

Ayala and LAUP have worked to secure more funding resources for preschools.

Earlier this year, LAUP joined other advocacy groups to push the LAUSD school board for a dedicated $34 million to expand early education. It’s an example, Ayala said, of how local school districts can be lobbied to help expand preschool using California's Local Control Funding Formula. Local Control Funding Formula gives local districts spending power and mandates that the funds be used to help English language learners and low-income and foster youth.

“Our biggest hopes are two,” Ayala said. “One is [the] Local Control Funding Formula, because the investment needs to start at home. But the other is that there has been a promise to expand from the governor and the Legislature." 

Next week, the White House is holding an early education summit where state winners of $250 million in federal preschool development grants will be announced. California expects to be named a recipient. LAUP could then apply to the California Department of Education for some of the funds, which could be used to keep open a portion of its preschool seats.

"At the end of the day, I hope that every child has a publicly funded quality preschool program,” Ayala said.

Preschool sites worry 

The lack of secured funding for LAUP worries some of its preschool sites. Hector LaFarga Jr. runs Mother’s Club in Pasadena, one of 276 LAUP locations.

Mother’s Club gets $160,000 from LAUP each year to provide 40 kids with preschool seats. They achieved a four-star quality rating from LAUP. LaFarga said LAUP's support has been a blessing.

“We expanded with LAUP just last year,” LaFarga said. “We received funding to open up an additional classroom in the afternoon.”

On Monday morning, a LAUP classroom is abuzz with activity. The 21 kids are split evenly between five adults — two teachers with a bachelor’s degree, one assistant teacher with an associate degree, and two parent volunteers. Each adult is working with a small group of children.

At one table, children are digging their chubby fingers into an aromatic ground spice and cornmeal concoction that they made. It’s gooey and gritty and provides the children with a sensory activity.

At the next table, kids are cutting colored shapes and sticking glittery beads with glue — a fine motor activity. Another group is dressed in swaths of material and frills. The kids are involved in imaginative play. Adults guide, prompt and play along.

“We have our teachers trained to stay in different areas and not get up every two seconds and move around. And they see the benefit," said  Julie Espinoza, educational director at Mother’s Club. "They get to know the children better, they get to teach them more when they stay put and they’re not moving around.”

It’s a subtle tweak but one that a trained coach from LAUP was able to help implement. 

LaFarga is confident he will be able to find other donors to cover the LAUP funds. But even for an established nonprofit like Mother’s Club, raising such a large amount of money is not going to be easy, he said. There may be chaos for families if providers cannot find funds to help replace the LAUP money, he adds.

Gabriela Flores' daughter graduated last year from the LAUP program at Mother’s Club. She said she loved watching her daughter grow and learn, especially since the LAUP model prioritizes learning through play, she said.

“For example, when they do play dough, they [make] the play dough from scratch. That’s science right there,” Flores said.

Flores’ eldest daughter went to a different preschool where there was rote learning of academics. She wants her youngest son, 2 year-old Fernando Patlan, to attend Mother’s Club instead. 

But Flores recently learned that its funding is not guaranteed for Fernando’s class of August 2016, and it worries her. She said she can’t stay home with him.

“I really need to work because we’re really in bad times financially in my family,” Flores said.

Flore’s husband works full time in a garment dying factory and she is a part-time substitute teacher. They still don’t make enough to pay a babysitter. Flores said she’d likely lean on her mother to watch Fernando if it came to it.  

This story has been updated.

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