Hundreds of young families will have another bill to pay next month. Starting Sept. 1, half-day state preschool classes will be free only to the poorest families.
A Merced mom said she learned about it Monday when she received a bill for $84, due Aug. 8. She owes an additional $160.17 by Sept. 1 for her 4-year-old to attend the same program her first-grader went to for free.
"It kind of threw us for a loop. That's like a used-car payment. That's just not enough time," said Stefani Perez.
Perez's husband is an air-conditioning technician who makes most of his money during the summer. But her bill is based on the most recent paychecks. She said she's talked with other moms and might just keep her little girl home.
The fees were signed into law with budget bills in early July. They take effect Sept. 1.
Merced City Elementary School District, which serves nearly 500 families in its state preschool programs, estimates that roughly 100 of them will owe at least a dollar a day under the new system, said district Assistant Superintendent Annie Dossetti.
Hundreds of families will be affected in Stanislaus County, predicted Deborah Clipper, head of the child and family serv- ices division of the Stanislaus County Office of Education.
State legislators estimated the change would raise $20 million, but the state Department of Finance estimates it will bring in closer to $3 million, said Eric Sonnenfeld of the early education department of the Merced County Office of Education.
"It's a disaster," said Sonnenfeld, reached on his way back from leading a training session on the changes for the California Child Development Administrators Association. He fears that many school districts, still closed for vacation, do not know about the fees.
"In the next couple of weeks, a lot of school districts will wake up to this requirement," Sonnenfeld said.
Of Merced County's half-dozen or so providers, only two also have the full-day program that traditionally charged a fee, he said. The others, like most around the state, have no policies in place to bill families or accounts set up to collect the money.
Clipper said the program was created as an educational program to help low-income children be ready for kindergarten.
"The part-day preschool was always the enhancement. It wasn't really designed for working families," she said.
Sonnenfeld said preschool leaders he talks with are frustrated by the sudden burden on them and the hardship on their families, calling the new fees an injustice. "It seems overwhelming to them," he said.
The fees are charged on a sliding scale by income level and are half of the full-day program cost. Under the new half-day fee schedule, a family of four making $2,167 to $2,253 a month pays a dollar a day. A four-person family with $3,908 a month in income, the top level, will pay $8.88 per half-day.