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Preschool pretensions

April 14, 2006

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER opposes Proposition 82, which would raise taxes to fund universal preschool. His main Democratic opponents, state Treasurer Phil Angelides and state Controller Steve Westly, support it. But on the issue of universal preschool, they all agree: It's wonderful. And they're all wrong.

As the campaign gears up -- Schwarzenegger, Angelides and Westly issued dueling statements Wednesday about Proposition 82 -- voters will become familiar with mantras that universal preschool will return a profit for every dollar spent, be a great equalizer, improve scholastic achievement and reduce dropouts. But the research is less clear. Preschool does benefit poor children, and the state should help their parents pay for it. Yet, despite many studies and the $2.3 billion a year Proposition 82 would spend on three hours daily of public pre-kindergarten, little is known about how long lasting the benefits are or what it takes to get them.

The chief research cited by actor/director Rob Reiner, the driving force behind the initiative, is a Rand Corp. study suggesting that for each dollar spent on universal preschool, Californians can expect $2.62 in savings on jails, special education and other services. But that study is based mostly on a successful Chicago program for impoverished black children. Preschool was only one part of the program, which provided parent education, healthcare, social services and long-term assistance. The Rand study extrapolates what that may mean in a far more limited California program with a very different population.

The Chicago experiment shows that weaving an extensive social services net for struggling families that includes preschool has big benefits. But it says little about what a half-day of preschool would accomplish for California kids. Universal preschool does not appear to raise test scores. In Georgia, which has had universal preschool for more than a decade, preschool-educated children fared much better academically in kindergarten, but the advantage faded by third grade. A recent nationwide study by a UC Santa Barbara professor showed similar results, as has other research, though the study also found preschool graduates were somewhat less likely to be placed in special education or held back a grade.

Part of the initiative's high cost stems from its requirements that preschool teachers must have a bachelor's degree and a teaching credential and be paid the same as public schoolteachers. But do preschool teachers need as much education as, say, high school math teachers, and should they be paid as much? Several studies suggest college-educated teachers interact better with preschoolers. But those interactions don't necessarily lead to more success for children. A study in Georgia found former preschoolers did equally well once they reached school, regardless of whether their preschool teachers had a two-year, technical or bachelor's degree.

Supporting Proposition 82 because it would provide untold benefits to California students, as Angelides and Westly do, is misguided. And opposing it because it would raise taxes, as Schwarzenegger does, is simplistic. There are better reasons to raise taxes, and better ways to improve educational achievement.

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