Inside the Lighthouse for Children, a daycare and preschool program in Fresno
When Brittany Vargas’ husband was offered a full-time job on top of his night classes, Vargas began to look for daycare for their four children.
But what should have been an opportunity turned into hardship for the Fresno family as Vargas realized the cost of childcare would eat her entire paycheck.
After a six-month search, and more than a year on a waitlist for help paying the fees, Vargas decided to quit and care for the children herself.
“I love, love being with my kids, but now we’re going to struggle to pay bills,” Vargas said. “You can’t make a living and pay daycare costs.”
A new study from the UC Berkeley Early Childhood Think Tank and the American Institutes for Research found that the San Joaquin Valley doesn’t have enough daycare and preschool spots for its population of young children, which will continue to grow through 2030.
The shortage affects both middle- and working-class families, the latter of whom face waits for subsidies while the former shoulder steep tuition costs for full-time care. Both groups have to contend with a scarcity of openings in licensed programs.
With no other options, some parents like Vargas drop out of the workforce entirely, a move that impacts both their families and the vitality of the region.
Meanwhile, early learning providers scramble to keep their programs in the black, weighing high tuition against paying their teachers and aides a fair wage.
“Our lack of childcare is actually a really stupid economic policy,” said Bruce Fuller, one of the authors of the study.
Fresno falls behind
California as a whole enrolls two-thirds of its 4-year-olds in a licensed preschool, which the study calls a “notable achievement for the nation’s largest state.”
Still, the study found that approximately 48 percent of California families with a 3- or 4-year-old “cannot find any preschool program with available slots, whether financed through parental fees or public dollars.” The numbers drop for even younger children and vary widely by region, with some of the lowest enrollment rates in counties in the San Joaquin Valley.
Past policies have emphasized the importance of preschool in setting 4-year-olds up for success in later grades. But the study says quality early learning settings are valuable for even younger children, leading to academic gains, particularly in children from low-income families.
Fuller said there will always be parents who opt to keep their 3- and 4-year-olds at home as best suits their preferences and family situations. But the goal is to have daycare or preschool spots available for families who want them.
Fresno County is short on both. Approximately 55 percent of all 4-year-olds are enrolled in a licensed center, compared to only 24 percent of 3-year-olds and 5 percent ages newborn to 2. The numbers are slightly higher for families who are eligible for subsidies.
Fuller said it’s possible to extrapolate from the enrollment numbers that there are probably about 13,000-14,000 available slots for Fresno County’s 79,132 children under age 4. The shortage here is also double-edged, according to Fuller, because the population of young children in the Valley will grow even while it drops in other parts of the state.
The study also emphasizes that not just any daycare will do.
“This analysis does not examine the quality of preschools statewide, which we know varies dramatically across local programs,” the study says. “Advancing wider access to mediocre pre-K would not be a wise public policy.”
But the kind of quality care that the authors of the study recommend is expensive.
Childcare fees range from $30-$50 per day, although in-home programs can be found for less and some facilities charge even more. Programs can be publicly subsidized or paid for privately. Families of certain sizes and income levels can apply for additional subsidies from organizations like the Children’s Services Network to offset the cost. Like with college tuition, some families find that they make too much to qualify for aid, but not enough to afford the care outright.
“Families do the math and realize their monthly pay isn’t enough to cover childcare,” Fuller said. “Usually moms — sometimes dads — will leave the workforce to care for their children.”
Sarah Olivera, a Fresno mom of two boys, said putting both of them in daycare meant having essentially two mortgage payments.
And even when the actual cost of the care is not a main factor, the lack of options has an impact on women’s economic involvement.
Jessica Smith, a Fresno mom of one, said she turned down a job when she couldn’t find a program she felt comfortable with, opting instead to stay home and work on a business. But becoming a stay-at-home mom had not been part of her plan.
“I’m for sure more of a career woman but I’m fortunate to be in a position to prolong staying home for now,” Smith said.
Jordan Sinclair Wolf of Fresno said she started looking for daycare when her daughter was 9 months old. She found that not only did most facilities not offer programs for children as young as her daughter, but that the ones that did had long waitlists.
Wolf said she barely survived the wait by coordinating the schedules of her daughter’s family members to serve as a stopgap until she was accepted into a daycare.
“It resulted in a few missed days of work [or] a few trips to the office with my child,” Wolf said.
Her daughter finally started daycare last month after nine months on the waitlist.
“The biggest recommendation I’ve been giving to pregnant women if they do have to go back to work at the 12-weeks postpartum, and they do not have family watching the child, or they do have the need to send their child to daycare, I highly, highly suggest starting to look now because any of the really good facilities — every single one — had some type of waitlist,” Wolf said.
To make up for the shortage, Valley parents often turn to each other through nannying, pick-up and drop-off services and in-home daycares.
In-home providers face a battery of tests before they earn their licenses, according to Shannon Cardenas, who operates a daycare in Clovis with spots for up to 14 children. After obtaining fingerprint clearance and having her home inspected, Cardenas said she undertook pediatric CPR certification, health and safety training and a mandated reporter class. When she expanded her program, she had to have a fire marshal evaluate her home, and she is now subject to surprise safety inspections.
But opening a daycare had a huge upside: it allowed Cardenas to be home for her own five children as they were growing up, she said.
“One of my children described it as being a part of a really, really big family,” Cardenas said.
Annabelle Kennedy, a transplant to Clovis from Bakersfield, said she was surprised to find that Fresno County had not caught up to the trend of co-op preschools, where parents commit to working as aides a few days per month in exchange for lower tuition. She found just one such program in Clovis and opted to send her daughter there for $15 per day, three days per week.
Kennedy said the exchange of time for tuition might not be possible for working parents, but there is an option at the TreeHouse Preschool to pay an additional fee in lieu of working in the classroom.
Finding a program is a relief for parents as they go back to work. Mom-of-twins Katie Chisolm had been driving from Clovis to Caruthers every day to leave her daughters with family. She said her current in-home daycare program is amazing, and it saves her on gas, too.
Lighthouse for Children
Although California’s paid maternity leave options are some of the best in the country, some parents still find themselves looking for childcare for their young infants.
The Lighthouse for Children in downtown Fresno is one of very few facilities that has a program for babies as young as six weeks. It allows nursing moms who work nearby to breastfeed their babies during their breaks, according to director Lupe Jaime.
But the wait for the infant classroom — which has a max size of eight — can be long.
“I encourage moms, as soon as they find out, to start applying,” Lupe said.
The Lighthouse also has programs for toddlers and preschool-aged children, as well as a dual-language classroom where kids speak English one week and Spanish the next. Its enrollment is comprised of 30 percent of families who pay full tuition, 30 percent who receive a partial scholarship and 30 percent whose tuition is fully subsidized. 10 percent of all children have special needs.
Jaime said the Lighthouse hires teachers who have already completed bachelor’s degrees and as a result, pays them more than other programs might.
But the program struggles to break even, Lupe said. It relies on funding from Fresno County and First Five California, as well as the New Markets Tax Credit program.
“That’s one reason why more people don’t just open their own programs,” Jaime said. “It’s very expensive.”
The only way to increase its budget would be to raise tuition, which currently runs $1,229 for infants, $1,003 for toddlers and $752 for preschool. Scholarships reduce those costs significantly.
A policy question
The election year brings with it some anticipation over how a new governor will approach education policy, according to Fuller. Democratic candidate Gavin Newsom has indicated support for universal preschool, while Republican John Cox has not expressed an opinion on early childhood learning programs.
The study points to cities like San Francisco, which offered a preschool scholarship that was more flexible than the subsidies offered by the state, as examples of how municipalities could support early learning programs. But Fuller said Fresno and other Valley cities with lower average incomes than the Bay Area are at a significant disadvantage.
“Dollars are getting stretched thin in the Central Valley, which means that providers have to make do with less, and unfortunately, sometimes that means sacrificing the quality of the care,” Fuller said. “What we need to do is funnel more state funding to the Central Valley to develop these programs.”