[Lance T. Izumi] 2/17/06
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
Lance T. Izumi
[Courtesty of Pacific Research Institute]
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
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 and his campaign try to dismiss such evidence
by arguing that unlike many current preschool programs, their
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
2006 Pacific Research Institute