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Reiner's Critics Sound Off
Government Universal Preschool…
[Lance T. Izumi] 2/16/06

A Public Policy Institute of California poll in January showed that 63 percent of likely voters support Rob Reiner’s government-run universal preschool initiative. While Reiner’s camp is predictably puffing this supposedly clear-cut support, the reality is much more cloudy.

First, many initiatives in California have started with similar levels of support only to lose on Election Day. What sounds like a good idea in a poll question often seems much less so after opponents have time to air their criticisms. In the case of the Reiner initiative, the critics are powerful and not limited to anti-government conservatives. For instance, one of Reiner’s toughest opponents has been the Los Angeles Times.

Lance T. Izumi
[Courtesty of Pacific Research Institute]

Lance Izumi is Director of Education Studies for the Pacific Research Institute and
Senior Fellow in California Studies. He is a leading expert in education policy and the author of several major PRI studies. [go to Izumi index]

Last year, a Times editorial sharply criticized the proposal’s tax-the-rich funding mechanism and the earmarking of newly raised tax dollars specifically for government-run preschool. "Let’s repeat," the Times emphasized, "the voting booth isn’t the place to draw up the state budget." In the wake of this editorial, the Times’ attack on the Reiner initiative has continued unabated.

Earlier this month, Michael Hiltzik, the paper’s usually liberal business columnist, described the initiative as "another attempt at ballot-box budgeting featuring misleading PR and misguided pied-piper appeal." Hiltzik then ripped the RAND Corporation study, which has become the bible of Reiner’s campaign. The study claims that for every $1 spent on preschool, society will get back $2.62 in long-term benefits such as better student performance and lower crime.

Hiltzik notes that RAND’s calculations are based on a Chicago program aimed at black children in that city’s poorest neighborhoods. Although the study’s main author says that the Chicago program is the most relevant for comparison purposes with Reiner’s envisioned California program, Hiltzik notes that "the two programs are hardly identical." The Chicago program provides health screening, speech therapy services, meals, home visits and continual and intensive parental involvement efforts. "None of these elements," observes Hiltzik, "is specifically funded by the Reiner initiative."

Further, whereas the estimates of the benefits of the Chicago program are based on tracking students for decades, the estimates of the benefits of a California program are, in Hiltzik’s words, "an extrapolation applied to a program that doesn’t yet exist." Thus, RAND’s benefit claims "should be seen as a projection, not a measurement."

The Los Angles Times isn’t the only unlikely home of Reiner skeptics. Academics at the University of California have issued studies that undercut key arguments of the Reiner campaign.

In January, UC Santa Barbara researchers found that because student achievement gains attributed to preschool attendance largely evaporate after four years in elementary school, "preschool alone may have limited use as a long-term strategy for improving the achievement gap without strengthening the schools these students attend or without additional support during the school years." In other words, unless California’s under-performing public K-12 system improves, don’t expect preschool to produce all those long-term benefits that Reiner claims.

Reiner’s campaign tries to dismiss such evidence by arguing that unlike many current preschool programs, their initiative will guarantee "high-quality" preschool. Key to their definition of "high-quality" is the initiative’s requirement that all preschool teachers have a bachelor’s degree and a post-bachelor’s teaching credential in early childhood education. Other UC researchers have also questioned this argument.

Well-known UC Berkeley professor Bruce Fuller and two fellow researchers issued a study last year that found that many of the studies claiming to show a connection between preschool teachers holding bachelor’s degrees and better student performance were methodologically flawed. They concluded: "Claims that a bachelor’s degree further advances child development simply cannot be substantiated by studies conducted to date."

Finally, even Georgetown University professor William Gormley, whose research on Oklahoma’s universal preschool program is often cited by the Reiner campaign, admits that, "A universal pre-K program may or may not be the best path to school readiness." Gormley’s own studies find inconsistent evidence as to whether universal preschool helps improve the short-term performance of middle- and upper-income children. And, indeed, there’s no long-term evidence that preschool helps non-disadvantaged children – a fact that undercuts the entire basis for a universal program.

Exposing the initiative’s inherent problems will make many voters re-think their initial support of the Reiner scheme. A determined, informed, substantive and adequately funded campaign against the initiative stands a good chance of succeeding. CRO

copyright 2006 Pacific Research Institute



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