Preschool Initiative’s Misguided Approach


Considering how hard it is to find prominent individuals with a selfless impulse toward public service, we shouldn’t begrudge the film director Rob Reiner his efforts to expand preschool education in California.

But that’s not to say that Reiner’s Preschool for All initiative, which will appear on the June ballot as a constitutional amendment, is a good idea. On the contrary, it’s another attempt at ballot-box budgeting featuring misleading PR and misguided pied-piper appeal.

Reiner’s initiative would make three hours of daily preschool available to all California children in the year before they enter kindergarten. It would establish state standards for pre-K education, including a mandate that teachers have a bachelor’s degree, and give jurisdiction to the state Department of Education.


The funding would come from a 1.7% tax on household incomes over $800,000. This would boost those taxpayers’ top marginal rate to 11% and yield about $2.4 billion a year by 2010.

No one disputes that such a program would be a good thing in principle; overwhelming evidence shows that children benefit from preschool, and disadvantaged kids benefit the most. Business, concerned about lagging student performance, is getting behind the initiative (judging by support from some local chambers of commerce) as are public employee unions and civic leaders.

The issue for taxpayers and policymakers, however, is more complicated: How else might the state spend $2.4 billion in annual revenue? Might any of that spending be equally necessary -- or more so?

How about arranging for every child in the state to be medically insured? Or providing every child access to textbooks, supplies, qualified K-12 teachers, a nutritious lunch and a safe learning environment?

That $2.4 billion would pay the annual interest on a $53-billion infrastructure bond (at 4.5%), allowing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to almost double his infrastructure plan. It could rebuild the Sacramento Delta levees, the condition of which threatens the lives, homes and livelihoods of millions of Californians.

Incidentally, the 1.7% levy would raise the top state income tax rate to a level not seen since 1995; after this, squeezing more money out of these wealthy stones will be almost impossible. (Earners of more than $1 million are already charged an extra 1% of the excess to fund a mental health program, so their top rate would be 12%.) If the Reiner initiative passes, not a dime of that money would be available for anything but preschool. Ever.

Not only would the principle of free preschool be enshrined in the state Constitution, but so would a particular approach to preschool. Suppose educational experts determined down the line that the most effective program combines preschool with smaller primary-school classes, or that the most appropriate teacher training might not require a BA? Tough. The rules will be written into the Constitution and, accordingly, hard to change. State educational practice will be embalmed, the clock stopped at 2006.

Yet, even today’s educators disagree about the right approach. Some contend, like the initiative campaign, that the only sure way to reach the neediest children is to make preschool available to all children, not just the most disadvantaged.

“There’s never been a targeted program that reaches 100% of the children who are eligible,” says Karen Hill-Scott, an education consultant working with the campaign.

Others say that targeted programs yield the best results and that preschool gains rapidly fade if primary schools don’t pick up the slack, perhaps via full-day kindergarten (not common in California) and follow-up services for four or five years (not part of the Reiner initiative).

The proper place to weigh these disagreements is in a legislative hearing room. The initiative’s sponsors chose not to go the legislative route; they have their own vision of preschool and want us to believe it’s the only option.

Promoters of initiatives love to portray their projects as silver-bullet cures. That’s already happening in this case. The Reiner team claims that Rand Corp. researchers have “found” and “confirmed” that, for every $1 spent on preschool, the state will get $2.62 back.

We’ll undoubtedly hear this figure repeated ad nauseam for the next four months. But it’s a subtle misstatement of the Rand study.

The study’s author, senior economist Lynn Karoly, based her calculations largely on a Chicago program aimed almost exclusively at black children in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. She called that program “the most relevant to an analysis” of a universal program in California.

But the two programs are hardly identical. Chicago’s serves a homogeneous disadvantaged population; California’s goal is to reach all economic classes within the state’s uniquely diverse population.

As Karoly observes in her study, the Chicago program also provides “health screening, speech therapy services and meals,” along with home visits and training for parents and continued support for some students in primary school. None of these elements is specifically funded by the Reiner initiative.

Researchers have calculated the fiscal return from Chicago’s program at $7.14 for every dollar spent. Not only are the subjects less likely to repeat grades, drop out or land in jail; they also earn more over their lives than others raised in similar circumstances but unexposed to the program.

But these are empirical data, derived by carefully tracking ex-preschoolers through age 20 or older; by contrast, Karoly’s figure is an extrapolation applied to a program that doesn’t yet exist. Accordingly, Karoly told me, she tried to be “as conservative as possible,” and her study should be seen as a projection, not a measurement.

The initiative promoters may not be so circumspect. The debate over our children’s educational future risks being turned over to electioneering press releases and TV spots featuring heart-tugging slogans. Are we about to be led down the wrong path?

Golden State appears every Monday and Thursday. You can reach Michael Hiltzik at and view his weblog at