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Less Expensive Alternatives to Reiner Preschool Plan
Unproven, ill-conceived…
[Lance T. Izumi] 3/9/06

How much preschool is needed to get children ready for kindergarten and subsequent grades? According to Rob Reiner’s Proposition 82, which will appear on the June ballot, the answer is one year of government-run preschool for all four-year-olds at a whopping cost of $2.4 billion per year. Yet a successful but much less expensive five-week preschool program has already been operating for two years in California.

Reiner and his allies contend that the high cost of his proposal is worth it, citing a RAND study that claims that for every $1 expended on preschool, society will receive $2.62 in long-term benefits such as better student performance and less criminal activity. RAND, however, admits that the Chicago preschool program for low-income children on which it bases its estimates is unlike Reiner’s initiative in many key ways: the level of parental involvement and the provision of services such as speech therapy and home visitations is simply not comparable to any situation in California.

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]

Even Georgetown University professor William Gormley, a well-known proponent of preschool legislation like Proposition 82, acknowledges that such programs "may or may not be the best path to school readiness." Indeed, hugely expanding poor-performing state and county education bureaucracies to run a massive new education initiative of questionable impact seems like a guaranteed formula for failure. And to entrench this scheme in the state constitution through a vote of the electorate is just plain dumb, especially given the alternatives to the Reiner plan that are already working.

For example, Ready to Start is a five-week preschool program held during the summer before children begin kindergarten. Ready to Start carries a price tag of only $350 per child, as opposed to the over $8,000 per child allocated under Prop. 82. The program, which has operated in the Greenfield and Rosedale school districts in Kern County, is a partnership between local businesses, education agencies and colleges. It uses existing school facilities and provides a structured academic experience for children.

Ready to Start evaluates children’s academic skills against established standards and the achievement of students will be tracked as they progress through elementary and middle school. Children are tested on a variety of reading, math and social skills before entering the program and also at the end. Children’s scores greatly improved by the conclusion of the program, and the improved skills retained through kindergarten. This short-term success for the five-week program is similar to the short-term successes claimed by the Reiner camp for year-long preschool. According to one local education official, "We can do something in five weeks at lower cost than programs that take longer and cost more money."

It is important to remember that as with Reiner’s program, there is no guarantee that the positive effects of Ready to Start will last throughout the academic careers of children from different income groups. Indeed, a recent UC-Santa Barbara study found that the positive effects of preschool fade away by the middle of elementary school, and even RAND admits that there is no long-term evidence that preschool has any benefits for middle- and upper-income children.

If there is uncertainty about the long-term positive effects of any type of preschool program, and if shorter and cheaper programs seem equally promising, then Reiner’s plan looks more like a high-risk white elephant. No wonder Democratic state Senate president pro tem Don Perata recently withdrew his endorsement of Prop. 82, saying that the initiative’s flaws "are fatal." CRO

copyright 2006 Pacific Research Institute



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