California Pre-K Plan in Trouble
Californians won't vote until June on television-actor-turned-movie-director Rob Reiner's initiative to create statewide, government-funded, universal preschool. But his "Preschool for All" ballot proposal, Prop. 82, has been causing a statewide stir for months.
Reiner, who starred as Mike "Meathead" Stivic in the 1970s TV comedy All in the Family and directed such films as This Is Spinal Tap and Sleepless in Seattle, is an old hand at California ballot initiatives. In 1998 he championed a successful proposal, Prop. 10, that raised cigarette taxes by 50 cents per pack and sent the resulting revenue to early childhood development programs. In 2004, he worked on a proposition that would have increased commercial property taxes in the state to raise funds for preschools, but he pulled it before he had gathered enough signatures to get it on the ballot.
Ironically, the earlier success of Prop. 10 has led to the most recent obstacle for "Preschool for All."
According to reports that surfaced at the end of February, the First 5 California Children and Families Commission--a child development organization created by Prop. 10 and chaired by Reiner--spent $23 million between November 2005 and January 2006 on ads promoting preschool. Critics claim that by having First 5 pay for those ads, Reiner improperly used taxpayer dollars to promote Prop. 82.
Reiner and First 5 responded to those accusations by saying nothing improper took place with the ads. Nonetheless, in order "to avoid any political distractions," according to a February 24 letter to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), as reported by the San Francisco Chronicle on February 26, Reiner took a leave of absence from the commission and will not return until after taxpayers vote on Prop. 82.
While causing a significant uproar, questions about Reiner's politicking are only the most recent troubles for Prop. 82. Even before questions about ad funding came up, opposition to the initiative had been gathering.
For instance, critics have pointed out for months that Reiner's program would not target the poor but would instead cover all Californians--including the estimated 66 percent of 4-year-olds already attending preschool. That was one of the main concerns state Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-East Bay) cited when he withdrew his support for the proposition in early March. Critics also have argued that the program, which will cost an estimated $2.5 billion per year, is simply too expensive.
"Preschool is a great idea, but is this the right vehicle?" state senator and former teacher Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch), who withdrew his endorsement of Prop. 82 after the First 5 revelations, asked in the March 6 issue of the Los Angeles Times. He went on to say that under the Reiner plan, "lots of money would go to parts of California where children are already in preschool. ... Any opportunity should be more targeted."
In addition to its targeting problems, some critics have argued the initiative, which would be funded by a 1.7 percent increase in the tax rate paid by upper-income Californians (single people making more than $400,000 annually or families making more than $800,000) would drive wealthy taxpayers out of the state.
"The new tax represents an 18 percent tax increase on wealthy Californians," wrote Lisa Snell, director of education and child welfare at the Los Angeles-based Reason Public Policy Institute, in a February report. "With wealthy Californians already leaving the state in search of lower tax rates in states like Nevada, Texas, and Washington, adding an additional tax burden will exacerbate the problem."
A RAND Corporation analysis proponents often cite to support Prop. 82 also has come under fire. Based on a study of a relatively small preschool intervention program in Chicago, RAND's analysis of Prop. 82 asserted that for every dollar California put into preschool, $2.62 would return to it through increased productivity, fewer people using social services, and other benefits.
Snell took issue with those findings, noting the Chicago program involved numerous intensive school and family interventions that are not part of "Preschool for All," including health screenings, nursing, and meal services. Snell said RAND "just put a number" on its benefit projection "and it is pure speculation."
Finally, critics note that in places where universal preschool is already available, it hasn't produced many gains. Oklahoma and Georgia have had universal preschool for several years, Snell wrote, but in "a recent analysis of the top 10 best and worst state performers" on National Assessment of Educational Progress fourth-grade reading tests, "both Georgia and Oklahoma were in the bottom 10 performers."
Despite Prop. 82's stumbling blocks, many of its supporters remain optimistic. Ted Lempert, president of the Oakland-based, bipartisan, child advocacy group Children Now, said he thinks the chances of Preschool for All passing remain "very, very good" despite Reiner's problems and the defection of high-profile supporters such as Perata.
"The larger issue," Lempert said, "is that people believe we need really good preschool."
A Field Poll of 507 likely voters conducted February 12-26, which found 55 percent of voters would support the initiative once they learned of it, seemed to support Lempert's optimism.
Neal McCluskey (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute's Center for Educational Freedom.
For more information ...
"Schwarzenegger's After-School Plan Needs More Study," by George Skelton, Los Angeles Times, March 6, 2006, http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-cap6mar06,1,7604424.column?coll=la-util-politics-cal.
"The Case Against Universal Preschool in California," by Lisa Snell, February 2006, http://www.reason.org/pb42_universalpreschool.pdf.
"The Economics of Investing in Universal Preschool in California," by Lynn A. Karoly and James H. Bigelow, RAND Labor and Population, http://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/2005/RAND_MG349.pdf.
"Poll: Californians Generally Support Preschool Initiative," by the Associated Press, The Mercury News, March 7, 2006, http://www.mercurynews.com/mld/mercurynews/news/local/states/california/northern_california/14038530.htm.
"Push for Universal Preschool Grows," by Lisa Snell, School Reform News, October 2005, http://www.heartland.org/Article.cfm?artId=17816.