No on 82: wrong fix for preschool

There can be no doubt that a well-educated work force is vital for California’s continued competitiveness in the global economy. And there also seems little doubt that attending preschool provides important advantages for children entering kindergarten, especially when it comes to overcoming the achievement gap for 4-year-olds from a lower-income or non-native-English-speaking background.

However, there is much room for doubt as to whether the expensive and cumbersome bureaucracy proposed by the $2.4 billion Proposition 82 universal preschool program could truly deliver much of what it promises.

That’s why voters should reject Prop. 82 and send the measure back to the drawing board.

All costs of Prop. 82 supposedly would be paid by a 1.7 percent tax on families earning more than $800,000 a year, providing free preschool for every California 4-year-old.

But high-end income taxes are known to be an extremely volatile revenue source as they reflect economic fluctuations. Thus Prop. 82 would allow the Legislature to impose tuition fees on preschool families to cover program costs. The free lunch promised by Prop. 82 supporters could become illusory for many taxpayers.

Even worse, many of the sunny claims in Prop. 82 seem based on highly shaky educational and financial assumptions about preschool benefits.

A 2005 RAND Corporation study warned that preschool for advantaged children is not proven to “necessarily translate into gains in eventual educational attainment — as it appears to do for more-disadvantaged children.” And a 2006 UC Santa Barbara report concluded that the preschool head-start effect on disadvantaged children fades away after a few years in badly performing elementary schools.

The promised affordability of Prop. 82 is also hard to believe. Quebec instituted universal preschool in 1998, promoting it as costing $230 million over five years. That cost has now ballooned to $1.7 billion per year, partially attributable to a 40 percent pay hike for a daycare employees union that threatened to strike.

Only a few years ago, spending more money to reduce class size was touted as a kind of magic bullet to dramatically improve student achievement. As we have all seen, that solution did not work. Now universal preschool is being sold as the next magic bullet.

California has already seen repeated demonstrations that using emotional voter referendums to divide a finite annual budget is bad for the state. Every general-fund dollar mandated to agood cause such as education or improving the highways means a dollar is snatched away from other good causes such as creating more group housing to keep mentally ill indigents off the streets or repairing fragile flood-control levees. Vote no on Prop. 82.

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