Working families face preschool dilemma

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When Myles Jones turned 3 in March, his mother began looking around for preschools because he was so bright.

“When he wasn’t quite 1, he could spell his name and he knew his birthday,” says Myles’ mom, Cherese McGee. She chose Toddler Town Day Care in Evanston, a private child care center with a Preschool for All program, because it offered instruction in the arts, science and reading. Plus, the program was a full day—a must for McGee, who is a single working mom.

McGee, however, says she struggles to make ends meet, citing monthly rent of $850,  plus a car payment, utilities, food and other living expenses. She says she sorely needed subsidized child care to bring her payment down from $660 per month to $264 per month.

But McGee’s $2,500 per month salary is just over the eligibility mark for the subsidy. To qualify, McGee cannot make more than $2,334 per month, according to income eligibility guidelines for the state’s Child Care Assistance Program.

Working parents who can’t afford private preschool but are not eligible for subsidies are among the toughest to serve when it comes to early education, according to Pre-K Now, an initiative of the Pew Center on the States.

Low-income families are often served by Head Start, while upper-income families can afford private programs, says a spokesperson for Pre-K Now. But working families struggle to find programs because of income restrictions on state-funded programs, and the problem is worsening because of the recent downturn in the economy. Plus, the half-day preschool programs typically provided by states don’t meet the needs of working parents.

To qualify for a subsidy, McGee, a law clerk at a downtown firm, reduced her work hours from 40 per week to 30, and turned down a $2 hourly raise.

Angelo Nikolov, the owner of Toddler Town, says he sees many families, including those with two working parents, in the same dilemma.

“They can make $100 more a year [than the guidelines permit], and they are cancelled out,” Nikolov says. “Parents can’t receive raises or overtime, which they really need. And when they do take it, where do you leave that child?”

McGee also applied to a preschool program at St. Philip Lutheran School on Chicago’s North Side, but at $170 a week, it is more expensive than Toddler Town. So Myles is still being cared for by his grandmother.

McGee, however, says she is determined to get her son into an early education program to make sure he has a good start when he heads to school.

“I don’t want him to get to high school and struggle to learn, which is what happened to me,” she says. “I was always a ‘C’ student even though I tried to do better. I want him to do better.”

Intern Daniela Bloch contributed to this report