A much-disputed daily fee for families with children in state-funded preschool programs likely will be removed from next year's state budget over concerns it has kept families from enrolling.

Assembly Member Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, who chairs the budget subcommittee on education finance, said the fee, which was added to the budget last year to help offset state costs, was a mistake.

"We did it for a year and it didn't work," she said. "We have the opportunity to evaluate it and say the value is not there."

After listening to testimony from experts and community members during a hearing last month, Bonilla's subcommittee voted to add language eliminating the fee to the trailer bill that will modify the proposed state budget. The budget will be revised in May before being sent to the governor's desk for approval. Generally, trailer bill amendments pass at that time as well.

Family fees for child care and full-day preschool have been on the books for years, and families now pay up to $17.76 per day for full-day state preschool programs. The fee being eliminated is for half-day state preschool, which serves more than 200,000 students a year and has been free until this year. Opponents of the half-day fee say it is a new charge for families who can ill afford it.

Like the other child care fees for state-supported programs, this one varies based on a family's income. A family of four making below $26,000 annually, for example, can still send their children to state-funded preschool programs for free. Four-member families making between $26,000 and $37,900 pay $1 to $8.88 per three-hour school day, based on a sliding scale.

State preschool operators who oppose the fee testified at the hearing that they have had children and families drop out of the program because they cannot pay. The California Department of Education does not track reasons individual families choose not to enroll in state preschool so it is unclear how many families have kept their children out because of the fee.

Cynthia Sloane, the director of child and family services at the Santa Cruz Community Counseling Center, said it's impossible to know exactly how many families decided not to attend her program because of the fee, but she knows it has been a deterrent for some. The program operates two half-day state preschool classrooms in Watsonville.

"We're serving the poorest of the poor who don't have any other options," Sloane said. "Asking them to (pay a fee) is really a hardship on these families."

Because state preschool doesn't have enough funding to serve all eligible children, Sloane's program still has a waiting list. The half-day fee, Sloane said, doesn't bring in enough additional income to significantly impact state preschool funding.

"It would be different if we were getting a lot of money or if it was paying for itself," Sloane said. "We're not bringing in enough money to do any good. It's tough on parents, it takes staff time, it generates a small amount of money, then that money goes back to the state."

Bonilla said the fee was meant to raise about $3.3 million for half-day state preschool. That amount is tiny compared to the preschool program's overall budget of $481 million, she said, and doesn't go far toward making up the $100 million the program has lost due to state budget cuts since 2008.

However, not all state-funded preschool operators oppose the fees. The Creative Montessori Learning Center in East Palo Alto serves 48 children in state-funded half-day preschool. Director Gloria Marshall said the fees weren't causing parents to drop out in significant numbers.

"If I'm perfectly honest, I don't know if it's bad that they have to pay fees," Marshall said. "People appreciate (the program) more. The fee tells them there's some value."

Leslie Juarez's son is enrolled in the afternoon session of the half-day program in East Palo Alto. On a recent Thursday, Juarez, 29, arrived early to bring pizza and cake to share with her son's classmates in honor of his fifth birthday. She said she didn't mind coming up with the $1 per day she owes for her son Joshua to attend preschool here.

"I budget around his fee," she said. "If that means we are not going to eat out on Saturday, we do that. I know this is important for him."

Juarez said she likes the program and Joshua's teacher and she feels lucky to have found such an inexpensive program to help her son get ready for kindergarten.

"He knows his letters and numbers and his vocabulary is growing," she said. He's not as shy and more willing to do things like pick up his own toys now, Juarez said. "It's worth it for him."

There has been no move to eliminate the full-day state preschool or general child care fees for low-income working class families, though that may come up if President Obama's Preschool for All proposal to greatly expand free preschool programs makes it through Congress this summer.

EdSource Today is the journalism arm of EdSource, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization founded in 1977 to engage Californians on key education challenges. Read more at www.edsource.org. Contact reporter Lillian Mongeau at lmongeau@edsource.org.

Preschool pay scale
California's half-day preschool program serves more than 200,000 students a year. Families pay based on income.
A family of four making below $26,000 annually can send their children to a state-funded preschool for free.
A family of four making between $26,000 and $37,900 pay $1 to $8.88 per three-hour school day, based on a sliding scale.
Private preschools, by comparison, generally charge by the month and vary greatly in cost, but broken down into a per-day rate, families can expect to pay between $25 and $50 for the half-day of care.