Univeral Preschool

April 5, 2006

Filmmaker Rob Reiner (aka Meathead) is stumping around the state, drumming up support for Universal Preschool, as provided by Proposition 82 on the June ballot.

Prop 82 would cost California $24 billion in the coming decade to send all 4-year-olds to a half-day of preschool. Reiner calls it “the single best way to fix the K-12 system.”

I just don’t buy that. I’m as liberal as can be, but I don’t believe that tagging another year of school on to the front end of a flawed K-12 system is a cure-all. It’s like adding an extra seat to a minivan with a failing clutch and bald tires, and driving another thousand miles.

Bruce Fuller, professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley, punches some holes in the proposition:

After four decades of research, we do know that young children from poor families benefit handsomely from attending preschool. But under Proposition 82… lower-income children would get less than half of the estimated $2.4 billion in new annual pre-school funding… That’s partly because over half of these children already attend free preschool. At least $1.4 billion would go to subsidize better-off parents who can already afford to pay for preschool.

The benefits of sending middle-class kids to preschool disappears by the time they hit third grade.

Boosters of 82 claim that the proposition will pay for itself over time, by offering taxpayers savings through reduced drop-out and crime rates. But this optimistic picture is based upon a successful Chicago preschool experiment from twenty years ago that went WAY, WAY beyond one free year of half-day preschool.

Chicago helped each poor youngster for seven years, from age 3 to 8. Staff went to their homes to offer children’s books and parenting techniques, such as positive discipline and teaching parents to “use their words.” No middle-class children participated.

I would love to divert big chunks of change toward public education. And the idea of universal preschool appeals to me greatly. But this country is in debt up to our eyeballs. If you’re going to spend billions of taxpayer dollars, it’s got to be targeted, not redundant with current programs, consistent with current research, and show results. If not, you might as well be a Republican shitting money away in Iraq.