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Wrong and Defeatable
Reiner Preschool Initiative...
[Lance T. Izumi] 2/17/06

For those who believe that Rob Reiner's initiative to create a government-run preschool program for all four-year-olds is a slam-dunk for passage in June, think again. True, preschool seems like a warm and fuzzy issue. However, Reiner's proposed preschool program, which would be funded by a tax increase on high-income earners, is so replete with problems that it offers a vast array of targets for critics. And, it is important to point out, those critics are not just limited to limited-government conservatives.

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]

For instance, one of Reiner's toughest opponents has been the Los Angeles Times. Last year, when Reiner first proposed his initiative, a Times editorial skewered the initiative. The Times slammed the concept of taxing the rich to fund specific programs: [In November 2004], voters approved a poorly thought-out measure to tax million-dollar earners to fund mental health programs. The line of good causes calling out for tax on the rich will only get longer. Citing the continuing structural deficit in the state budget and the cost of Reiner's initiative, the Times observed, The last thing California needs right now is to raise another huge sum of money -- $2.3 billion a year to start that can't be used to close existing gaps. Warning against ballot-box budgeting, the Times thundered: Let's repeat: The voting booth isn't the place to draw up the state budget.

The Times attack on the Reiner initiative has continued. Earlier this month, Michael Hiltzik, the papers 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, that 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 Times, however, is not the only unlikely home of Reiner skeptics. Academics at the University of California have issued studies that have undercut key arguments of the Reiner campaign. In January, UC Santa Barbara researchers found that whatever student achievement gains can be attributed to preschool attendance largely evaporates after a few years in elementary school. Because of this fade-out effect, the researchers question the long-term impact of preschool: Yet because the achievement impact of preschool appears to diminish during the first four years of school, while the achievement gap especially for Spanish-dominant language minority students increases, 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 and his campaign try 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 must have a bachelor's degree and a post-bachelor's teaching credential in early childhood education. Yet, there is a great deal of data to suggest that a four-year degree and a special teaching credential have little, if any, effect on student achievement.

UC Berkeley professor Bruce Fuller, who has battled conservatives over school choice issues, and two fellow researchers issued a study last year that examined the research on teacher education and preschool. What they found was that many of the studies claiming to show a connection between teachers holding bachelor's degrees and better student performance were statistically and methodologically flawed. Thus, they concluded, Claims that a Bachelor's degree further advances child development simply cannot be substantiated by studies conducted to date. In addition, given the higher salaries that will have to be paid to preschool teachers under the Reiner initiative, To pay-out higher reimbursement rates based on the number of BA-credentialed teachers will be costly and may not yield significant benefits to children.

Finally, even Georgetown University professor William Gormley, who supports universal preschool and 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. This acknowledgement is probably due to the fact that in Gormley's own studies of the Oklahoma program, there is inconsistent evidence as to whether universal preschool helps improve the short-term performance of middle and upper-income children. And, indeed, there is no long-term evidence that preschool helps non-disadvantaged children a fact that undercuts the entire basis for a universal program.

Given the opposition of key elements of the major mainstream media and academia, plus the gaping holes in the evidence supporting a universal preschool program, Reiner's initiative is vulnerable. The recent Public Policy Institute of California poll that found 63 percent of Californians support the Reiner initiative may be flawed because poll respondents were read only a concept description of the initiative rather than the official title and summary. In other surveys, much lower levels of support were recorded when the official title and summary were read to respondents. Even if the 63 percent is accurate, however, it is a relatively low level of support given the warm fuzziness of the issue and the media ad campaign that has already started in support of preschool for all children. CRO

copyright 2006 Pacific Research Institute



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