Boondoggle of massive proportions

Jennifer Roback Morse
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Posted: Jun 05, 2006 12:06 AM

Once again, the bad arguments in favor of universal pre-school arise from the dead like a vampire. I feel like Dr. J, the Vampire Slayer: I’ve been arguing against the high-quality-low-cost-universal preschool crowd for years. How many times do I have to shoot this thing? But this time, the universal preschool argument has a $2 billion dollar price tag attached to it.

Rob Reiner and his liberal allies have created Proposition 82, the "Preschool for All" Act. If approved by the voters of California on June 6, this proposition would create an entitlement for government funded preschool for all four year-olds for at least three hours a day. The fate of Proposition 82 matters, even if you don’t live in California. Bad ideas have a way of oozing out of California and into the rest of the country.

Supporters claim that the $2.4 billion spent on preschool education will be cost effective for the state because "studies show" that attending "quality" preschool will improve reading, school achievement, reduce the drop out rate, teen pregnancy, drug use and crime. Supporters say that Prop 82 will have no cost for 99.4% of California taxpayers.

These arguments for Prop 82 are fatally flawed.

The proponents of universal preschool consistently overstate its benefits. Their favorite study is a Rand Corporation study that extrapolates the benefits obtained by a program in Chicago in the 1980's. The results of that particular preschool study have nothing to do with the results the average family could expect, or with the results the entire state of California would be likely to achieve.

The Chicago preschool program was targeted at low-income, high-risk children, most of whom had unmarried parents. Finding that high quality preschool helped this group of people says absolutely nothing about the impact of preschool on the children of middle class, married-couple households. Most of those kids are already in preschool programs anyway;overall, 65% of California children are in some form of preschool. It is pointless to spend taxpayer dollars subsidizing kids who are already well-provided for by their own parents.

These same kinds of studies are used to browbeat stay at home mothers into placing their kids in preschools or daycare centers. "Am I harming my child by depriving him of the enriching preschool experience?" mothers ask me all the time. No, I always reply. Just pay attention to what your child needs, and trust your instincts. Ignore the studies, unless they apply to your situation very specifically. The studies touting universal preschool are based on non-universal samples and have nothing to do with the experiences of most families.

Furthermore, the Chicago program was more than an academic program. It also required parental involvement, and taught parenting skills. Some of the program’s benefits are surely attributable to the improved parenting the mothers used throughout the child’s formative years. Yet the supporters of universal preschool assign all the credit to the one year the child spent in their precious preschool program. After all, we wouldn’t want to give credit to parents. Everyone knows parents are the problem. The sooner we get kids away from their parents and into government run schools, the better off everyone will be.

And by the way, Prop 82 mandates that the state determine curriculum standards for preschool. Remember, this is the state that micromanged the curriculum to the point of requiring history textbooks to include the contributions of gays, lesbians and transgendered persons. The state legislature has no common sense about the curriculum they are already responsible for, so it's important not to put the little kiddies into their hands any sooner than necessary.

The supporters of Prop 82 say it will have no impact on 99.4% of the taxpayers, because the program will be funded by a special tax on the highest income bracket.  Prop 82 requires a 1.7% tax on individuals with incomes over $400,000. But this claim is misleading.

According to the official Legislative Analyst, these same taxpayers already pay one third of the state’s annual income taxes. Remember that the state’s solvency is deeply dependent on this handful of people. Last time we had a big recession in California, tax revenues went to hell in a basket. The burst of the "Dot Com" bubble drained wealth from the wealthiest, so these high income people no longer had the income to tax. Besides paying the taxes, these are the people who create jobs in our state. Prop 82 says, "let’s tax them some more." We might as well have a contest to see how many wealthy people we can drive into Nevada.

Proposition 82 requires preschool teachers to have approximately five years of college. Proposition 82 funds would pay a half billion dollars to colleges and universities to develop new courses. There is no proven benefit to this increased credentialism. Think of what the state and individual families could do with that money instead.

This is a boondoggle of massive proportions. Even if you don’t live in California, forward this column to everyone you know who does. Even if you don’t go to the polls on June 6th for any other reason, go vote no on Proposition 82.