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Strategies for City Involvement in Child Care and Early Education


Kristen Anderson has been Redwood City's child care and preschool coordinator and planner for more than 20 years. She is a planning and police consultant and author of Planning for Child Care in California. Anderson can be reached at kmanderson@redwoodcity.org.


California cities are investing in child care and early education as they recognize the economic, social and educational value of such programs to their communities. Expanding workforce participation of mothers over the past several decades -- whether by choice or welfare reform mandate -- has increased the demand for these programs from dual- and single-parent households of all income levels. While not everyone chooses licensed child care (centers or family child care homes), most people want their children to attend preschool for its school readiness and socialization benefits.

Because no public responsibility for early education or child care exists in California , a patchwork of private and public services, operators, facilities and funding sources make up any community’s "system." In most areas, the majority of child care and part-day preschool centers are run by private or nonprofit entities (rather than school districts) and are supported largely by parent fees and use of low-cost space rented from churches or schools. The extent and diversity of local child care resources are usually determined by the availability and/or assertiveness of child care operators (nonprofit, public and private) and intermediary agencies as well as local demographics, such as parents’ ability to pay fees and workforce participation rates.

How Local Leaders Can Help

Local government officials and staff can support the development of adequate child care resources to meet community needs by providing leadership, adopting supportive land use policies, leveraging public and private resources, and ensuring that these needs are considered in long-range planning and integrated with other community development activities.

When he was a council member in the City of South San Francisco, Gene Mullin (now a state Assembly member, D-19) provided leadership that resulted in adoption of child care policies in the city’s general plan and a child care facilities fee assessed on new development.

In Watsonville, city leaders were influential in the success of the Via Del Mar transit-oriented affordable housing and child care project adjacent to the downtown transit center. On land the city leased from the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transportation District, a nonprofit developer built 21 apartments above a 32-child center. Funding for the project came from the federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program, state Department of Parks and Recreation, and public and private funders.

The challenges of land and development costs coupled with the inability of most child care operators to finance facility development often means public involvement is needed. Assembly Member Ira Ruskin (D-21), formerly a Redwood City Council member, worked with parents, staff and colleagues in 1999 to address the large unmet demand for child care in the Redwood Shores neighborhood. The lack of affordable space to house child care in this master-planned community required a creative solution. "Our research led us to the conclusion that meeting this infrastructure need required unique city participation and resulted in an unusual public-private partnership," says Ruskin. The city leased part of a water tank site and provided financing to a developer who built a 156-child center that is operated by an experienced child care company. Ruskin adds, "This facility will provide long-term benefits to area residents and workers, including eliminating their need to travel to surrounding cities to spend their child care dollars."

Cities use a variety of methods to support child care facilities development. Since the 1980s, several cities have adopted development linkage programs, most recently Santa Monica (2006), Palm Desert (2005) and San Mateo (2004). Such programs usually assess an impact fee (per housing unit or per square foot of non-residential space) to mitigate the increased child care demand resulting from new development. In a few cases, developers of large projects are required to build a child care facility on- or off-site. Other cities are requesting that environmental impact reports for large projects include child care. Cities are also granting reductions of parking requirements and traffic or other fees to enable siting of new facilities. The City of Goleta treats child care facilities as "beneficial projects" eligible for transportation fee reductions.

Cities increasingly recognize that child care is a quality-of-life issue supporting business development, which attracts and retains employers and creates jobs. For example, the City of South San Francisco built a 100-child center in the Gateway area east of Highway 101 to help retain and grow its significant biotech industry cluster. The 0.7-acre site was part of an office park developer’s site, and the redevelopment agency used $2.7 million of bond funds to construct the 8,500-square foot facility, now leased to a nonprofit operator. Other public and private funds were leveraged to support start-up.

Child care coordinators and planners in San Jose, Palo Alto, Milpitas, Santa Monica, Long Beach, Irvine, Redwood City, San Francisco and other cities support building the supply of child care centers, quality improvement and parent access by:

  • Streamlining city permitting to reduce unnecessary barriers;
  • Helping applicants to navigate local permit and state licensing processes;
  • Maximizing all existing funding and facilities, and capturing new funding;
  • Engaging public and private partners; and
  • Linking child care with other community planning and development.

Some proactive strategies can be undertaken by staff in Community Development, Recreation or Community Services departments. However, understanding the complexity of the child care system and its overlap with planning issues is important. For example, a new facility in a low-income neighborhood cannot survive without state or federal child care/preschool program funding.

Successful City Efforts

City support for child care and early education takes many forms. Some cities provide child care benefits for their employees, even developing municipal child care centers, as Daly City and San Diego have done. Some operate child care programs through their Parks and Recreation Department. Others lease city facilities or grant funds (general funds or Community Development Block Grants) to local agencies to support scholarships for low-income families or program quality grants, as Santa Monica and Palo Alto have for many years.

Advocating for increased state and federal subsidies for income-eligible families can also help. The majority of such families are on waiting lists for limited (non-entitlement) subsidy programs while they either do not work or use a patchwork of informal care arrangements.

Local officials can help set the course for growing and improving a community’s child care and early education system, which will benefit residents and workers for generations to come. Leadership that increases visibility and attention to these needs also brings other public and private partners (including child care experts) and resources to the table.