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No on Proposition 82

May 21, 2006

Universal preschool, like world peace or thoughtful television, is a worthy goal. But Proposition 82, the initiative on the June 6 ballot that would provide preschool free of charge to every 4-year-old in California, has a defect common to most initiatives: It's so poorly designed that it could do more harm than good. Californians should vote no on Proposition 82.

The initiative would set up a cumbersome bureaucracy and place it under the state Department of Education, which has done a disappointing job with K-12 schools. It would make taxpayer-funded preschool available to middle-class and rich families, which can easily afford it. It could worsen the teacher shortage by draining public schools of qualified teachers. And though the initiative allows private preschools to become part of the system, it's written in such a way to favor programs at public schools.

By placing an added income tax on California's wealthiest residents, Proposition 82 would raise $2.4 billion a year for three hours a day of free, voluntary preschool for all 4-year-olds -- although only a handful would be added to the preschool rolls. In order to pay for 25,000 to 50,000 additional children in preschool, taxpayers would foot the bill for the 325,000 other 4-year-olds already in preschool. That's partly why the measure is so expensive.

Another reason is that Proposition 82 would require preschool teachers, who now need about a semester's worth of college credits, to obtain not only a bachelor's degree but a special teaching credential. It would require that they be paid comparably to public K-12 teachers. The state should raise education requirements for preschool teachers, but requiring a bachelor's degree and a teaching credential is expensive and excessive. In Georgia, which has had universal preschool for a decade without requiring a bachelor's degree, research shows that teachers with two-year associate's degrees do just as good a job.

At the same time, Proposition 82 could bleed the public schools of qualified teachers. Look at it from their perspective. Preschool teachers would have smaller classes and an aide, no homework to grade and no standardized tests to deal with. Yet they would be paid the same as K-12 teachers.

Studies make clear that preschool can be a boon to disadvantaged kids. But they don't tell us whether preschool helps more than, say, full-day kindergarten, or smaller class sizes, or family literacy classes. Yet, as with all ballot-box budgeting, Proposition 82 requires that all the money go to one program, even if other ways prove more effective at helping young students. Studies show that certain preschool gains are lost by third grade when children enter low-performing schools, yet none of this money could be used to shore up cash-starved public schools.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's new budget proposes increases in funding to build new preschools and enroll probably more than 25,000 additional children within three years. Like the governor, we realize that preschool is important. But Proposition 82 is not the right way to support it.

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