‘Yes’ to new free-preschool plan

Gov. Schwarzenegger’s timely revival of his May proposal to allocate $100 million for pre-kindergarten programs, only one day after Rob Reiner’s poorly designed Proposition 82 failed at the polls, is a good thing for 4-year-olds from the state’s most disadvantaged families.

Sixty-one percent of California voters rejected Proposition 82, amid plenty of evidence that it would spend most of its $2.4 billion to create an unnecessary bureaucracy and provide “free” preschool to well-off families that could afford paying for it.

Preschool has been proven to help children get a good start in early grades, particularly children from low-income or non-English-speaking families. So it makes sense for policy-makers to go back to the drawing board after Prop. 82’s failure for a more reasonable plan directed at California’s neediest children.

As it happens, that more reasonable plan already exists. The governor wanted to begin allocating a portion of mandated Proposition 98 education money for preschool in the state school districts ranked in the bottom 30 percent of academic scores.

This plan would phase in with $100 million next year and could ultimately rise to an estimated $145 million a year to adequately fund preschool for the poorest families. The funding could be used to start new preschool programs or enhance existing ones. And it could be used in parent-child literacy programs for families with limited English backgrounds.

This approach would focus exclusively on narrowing the achievement gap for the approximately 43,000 4-year-olds in the lowest-ranked schools. Yet it would cost only a fraction as much as the bloated Proposition 82 and would come entirely from money that the voters have already set aside to be spent solely for education.

Now that Proposition 82 has failed, there is no reason for the better preschool plan not to go back into the 2007-08 budget.

Last Wednesday, state education spokespersons announced the Schwarzenegger administration’s renewed emphasis on getting the preschool $100 million back into the budget. The governor is expected to make a public appearance this week trumpeting the benefits of free preschool for the disadvantaged.

Although preschool expansion may not deliver all the rosy education improvements promised by Proposition 82 backers, there seems little doubt it does help those pre-kindergartners facing the highest risk of failing to learn. California obviously must continue seeking ways to remedy its troubled school system. Opening preschool access for the neediest children is an experiment considerably more promising than most others that have been attempted.

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