California has one of the most progressive pre-K models in the country.
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Noodle Staff
Noodle Expert Member

December 19, 2019

A 5-minute guide to preschool and child care in California, with special sections on San Francisco and Los Angeles. Learn about licensing laws, instructor training, and enrollment requirements — everything you need to know to choose the right program for your child.

Takeaway: California recently passed a budget that increases access for child care and early childhood education opportunities. Child care in California is highly regulated, though there is slightly less oversight for smaller home-based care providers. All providers are overseen by the same regulatory office, which makes licensing laws and regulations readily available, if not very readable.


Both center-based and home-based care are overseen by the California Child Care Licensing Program, which provides information for parents and providers. Most of the programs in the state require licensing, but there are special exceptions that are similar to other states’ unlicensed care regulations. California has a fairly standard database that can be searched by county, address, and facility type. Results display very detailed inspection and compliance reports along with contact information and child capacity.

California has one of the most progressive pre-K models in the country. In 2014, the state passed a budget that immediately offered 40,000 full-time pre-K spots to low-income 4-year-olds. State legislation is currently pushing for both universal pre-K and transitional kindergarten for children as young as age 2. As of June 2015, parents can no longer claim “personal belief" on behalf of their children as reason for not receiving immunizations — meaning that unless there is a medical exemption, all children are required to be vaccinated before entering pre-K.

Center-Based Care

Center-based care is considered standard in California. There are more than 100 pages of regulations for center-based care, though the state also publishes a list of highlights. All licensed care centers are required to display their licenses, plans of operation, and emergency plans; they must also be cleared for fire safety. Directors must either have an education in child growth development or possess a childhood development permit granted by the state. In addition, teachers must meet specific education and training requirements. Centers that offer infant care are required to provide individualized feeding, diapering, and toileting plans for each child.

Caregiver-to-child ratios vary depending on age, and California prescribes specific ratios for adult-to-children and teacher-to-children ratios. A single teacher may be responsible for up to 12 preschool-aged children, though if an aide is also present, the number increases to 15 children. For programs with children ages 18 to 30 months, the ratio is 1:6, with a maximum group size of 12 toddlers. Toddler programs must be separate from programs for school-aged children. The teacher-to-child ratio for school-aged children is 1:14; one teacher and one aide may supervise up to 28 children. In mixed-age groups, the number of staff must accommodate the age of the youngest child. Infant programs require a ratio of 1:4, with a maximum group size of 12 children.

Home-Based Care

In California, there are two types of home-based care, which are differentiated by size. Small family child care providers may supervise either four infants or six children if no more than three are infants. Or, a provider may care for up to eight children if there are no more than two infants in care, at least one child is 6 years of age, at least one child attends school, and parents are notified and have given consent. Large family child care homes, on the other hand, which must include the presence of an assistant in addition to the primary care provider, may supervise up to 12 children, provided that no more than four are infants. Up to 14 children may be supervised if at least one child is at least 6 years of age, at least one child attends school, and no more than three infants are on the premises. Parents must also be notified and give consent. Large family child care homes must obtain a fire safety clearance, though it is not required of small family child care homes.

Unlicensed Care

License-exempt care in California includes care provided by relatives and situations in which a provider is caring for the children of only one other family besides the provider’s own. Co-op arrangements are also exempt if providers do not require or receive payment, are related to a child in care, and are supervising no more than 12 children at a time. Though there are some instances in which programs may be legally license-exempt, California stresses that as a general rule, licenses are required; operating without one is a misdemeanor for which the provider will be subject to a fine.

How Preschool Works in Los Angeles

Los Angeles county offers a separate universal pre-K program known as the Los Angeles Universal Preschool program. All 4-year-old children, regardless of parental income, are eligible to receive high-quality pre-K during the typical school year (September to June). The county also provides support for families transitioning toward stability with the CalWORKS Child Care Program as well as a child care directory that allows parents to search for licensed child care centers and small and large family child care homes according to location and facility type.

How Preschool Works in San Francisco

San Francisco also offers a part-time universal pre-K for all 4-year-olds who live within the city limits, though programs are not available in all communities. The city’s Office of Early Care and Education provides information about an assortment of child care programs, services, subsidies, and pertinent information for immigrant families.