As Californians make up their minds about Proposition 82, Rob Reiner’s government-run universal preschool initiative, they will no doubt have memories of the cuddly toddlers and sweet teachers who appeared in countless pro-82 ads. They may also remember the incredible claims made about the benefits of universal preschool. However, they should realize that these images and claims are built not on facts, but on a series of myths.
Myth No. 1: For every taxpayer dollar spent on government-run universal preschool, society will reap more dollars in future benefits. This claim is based on a RAND Corp. study that uses data from a Chicago preschool program targeted only at low-income black children. Extrapolating its benefits to California’s is empirically unsupportable.
Myth No. 2: Preschool bestows long-term benefits to middle- and upper-income children. Even RAND admits there’s no evidence for this claim, acknowledging that the one study that examined the long-term benefits of preschool on non-poor children “found that children participating in preschools not targeted to disadvantaged children were no better off in terms of high school or college completion, earnings, or criminal justice system involvement.”
Myth No. 3: Universal preschool in California will mirror successful preschool models. Pro-82 forces contend that their preschool program will mimic successful experiments such as the Chicago program. But key features of the Chicago program — a parent involvement program, home visitations, health screenings, speech therapy and nursing services — are not included in Prop. 82.
Myth No. 4: Higher requirements for preschool teachers will improve student achievement. Under Prop. 82, preschool teachers must have a bachelor’s degree and a teaching credential. However, UC Berkeley researchers warn: “Claims that a bachelor’s degree further advances child development simply cannot be substantiated by studies conducted to date.”
Myth No. 5: There’s no downside to preschool. According to a 2005 Stanford-UC Berkeley study, “attendance in preschool centers, even for short periods of time each week, hinders the rate at which young children develop social skills and display the motivation to engage classroom tasks, as reported by kindergarten teachers.”
Myth No. 6: One year of preschool is necessary for best results. Ready to Start is a five-week preschool program held during the summer before children begin kindergarten in Kern County. It costs only $350 per child versus up to $8,000 per child under Prop. 82. 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.”
Myth No. 7: Low-income minority children need preschool in order to succeed. At Sixth Street Prep public charter school in Victorville, large numbers of students are poor, immigrant and Hispanic. Principal Linda Mikels says their test scores have improved greatly without preschool because of the proven research-based curricula and teaching methods used at the school.
Myth No. 8: High preschool participation explains why French students outperform American students. U.S. fourth-graders test better in reading and literacy skills than their French counterparts. Only in the later grades do U.S. students lag behind their French peers. The better inference: poor middle schools, not lack of preschool.
Myth No. 9: Taxing the rich is the bestway to pay for preschool. Former state Legislative Analyst William Hamm estimates that because of likely tax-avoidance actions by high-income earners, the state’s General Fund would sustain an average total loss of $4.2 billion in revenues between 2007 and 2011, causing a loss in education revenues of $1.5 billion between 2008-09 and 2011-12.
Myth No. 10: The cost of government-run preschool will be affordable. It is likely that Prop. 82 will cost much more than the anticipated $2.4 billion per year. Reason Foundation researchers point to Québec, where government-run preschool was supposed to cost $230 million over five years. Today it costs $1.7 billion every year — 33 times the original estimate.
Lance T. Izumi is director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute and co-author, along with Xiaochin C. Yan, of PRI’s recent research pamphlet “No Magic Bullet: Top Ten Myths about the Benefits of Government-Run Universal Preschool.”