San Francisco Preschool For All: How Our Universal Preschool Program Works

preschool for allDid you know that San Francisco has a universal preschool program? The program, which has been in operation since 2004, is called
Preschool for All (PFA) and is administered by First 5 San Francisco.  PFA’s mission is to increase access to high quality preschool education for all 3- and 4-year old children in San Francisco.

But what does this program really mean for families and how can they take advantage of it? To learn more about PFA, we sat down with Matthew Rector, PFA Program Administrator.  We covered everything from how to find and apply to PFA schools, what it means in terms of tuition savings for families, and why all San Francisco families should know about this fantastic program.

Also, NurtureList is excited to announce that we’ve made PFA a quick filter on our search and parents can easily find all PFA schools nearby.

NL: Let’s get a frequent question (and myth) about PFA out of the way.  What kind of families does PFA target?  Can families from all different socio-economic backgrounds benefit from the program?

Matthew:  We find that this is the biggest misconception about PFA – that it is only a subsidy for low income families.  PFA’s mission is universality and families of all income levels can take advantage of our tuition reduction program.  We believe that all children benefit from, and all preschool programs are higher quality as result of, having a diverse student population from different backgrounds.

Unfortunately, the trend for a lot of federal and state level funding for early childhood education is towards a bifurcated system of having lower income families attend one set of schools (for example schools that enroll children under the Head Start Subsidy) and high income families attend another set of schools that are private-pay (also called tuition-based).  PFA goes against this trend by funding both schools that contract with various public agencies to serve low income families as well as schools that are tuition-based.  Our funding to the tuition-based schools allows them to reach more families that haven’t been able to afford these schools in the past by offering the children scholarships.

NL: At what age can a child benefit from PFA?

Matthew: PFA started for just 4-year-olds, but since then we’ve expanded the program to include 3-year olds in our Preschool Plus program which is targeted towards families who qualify for subsidies.

NL: So how much money can families save by attending a PFA school?

Matthew: PFA was designed to offer all children from all family backgrounds the opportunity to attend preschool in the pre-kindergarten year by offering a tuition credit for a partial day program.  For full-time children enrolled in tuition-based programs, parents generally receive a tuition credit of approximately 25%.

NL: Given how expensive preschool is in the city – it’s not uncommon to see tuition in the range of $20,000 to $30,000 per year – 25% is a big savings for the family.  How can parents enroll in a PFA school?

Matthew: There are approximately 150 schools in the city (including both centers and home-based facilities) that are PFA locations, which mean they meet our quality requirements and receive funding from us.  Parents apply to these schools as they would with any other schools – the admissions process is school-driven.  The key for parents is to know which schools are in the PFA program, and as spots tend to fill up early, we recommend starting the preschool search up to one year in advance.

NL:  Why is the PFA program implemented this way? Why not give parents a voucher that they can take to any preschool?

Matthew:  The PFA program has designated sites because we want to ensure that children are getting high quality education.  In order to become a PFA program, schools must go through an application process to prove they meet certain instructional quality standards.  These standards go above and beyond the basic licensing requirements the state requires for childcare facilities, which are primarily concerned with health and safety.  PFA’s standards require a rigorous program geared towards having children meet developmental milestones.

Every licensed provider in the city can participate – we really want them to, and we really try to limit the administrative hassle that they must go through to become a PFA school – but they do have to meet at least our baseline criteria for instructional quality.

NL:  Give me some examples of what these standards mean in real life for children.

Matthew:  So for example, PFA schools have teachers that are highly trained.  The minimum requirement for our Teacher Permit is 24 units of Early Childhood Education (ECE) courses.  Additionally, the Program Director or Site Supervisor must have a Bachelor’s or Associate’s degree, respectively.

Additionally, the teachers are required to undergo continuous professional development and training, which is facilitated and funded by PFA.  Schools also receive funds from PFA to conduct their own program improvements.

Another example of our quality standards is that PFA schools must give each child 2 assessments of developmental progress using Desired Results Developmental Profile each year and discuss the results with the family.  We believe that in order to prepare kids for kindergarten, we need to measure their milestones.

NL: PFA sounds like a wonderful program.  What does its future look like?

Matthew: PFA was recently reauthorized by Proposition C in November 2014.  The reauthorization did force some changes.  First 5 San Francisco will no longer administer PFA;  instead, the city’s Office of Early Care and Education will oversee the program.  When the city reauthorized PFA, the investment did not increase, but its scope increased from funding universal preschool for 4-year olds to the entire early education system in San Francisco.  My concern is that PFA could become a back-stop to Head Start and the State Preschool Subsidy, which reimburse inadequately, and lose its universal quality as a result.

NL: Why is the universal quality important?  Why is it important to offer tuition credits to even high income families who can afford preschool without it?

Matthew: We’ve always looked at it as an extension of the public school system.  The universal quality is critical because balanced socioeconomic profiles in classrooms gives the best educational outcomes to children. Also, limiting the universal quality of the program could negatively impact provider participation.  We see this as vital to creating classrooms with children from a variety of backgrounds, which we know improves the quality of the educational experience.

Learn more about PFA, browse the locations here or on NurtureList.

Got topics or questions you’d like to see us cover? Let us know at!

Photo courtesy of Mike Mollnari (Flickr).


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