Californians weigh merits of preschool for all

Amid disagreement over which children would benefit, voter support for the June ballot initiative is dropping.

. - At the Family Nurturing Center - a top-rated California private preschool here - 4-year-olds are spread among a half-dozen play stations doing what kids do best. They dress up, sing, glue buttons to paper, work puzzles, play restaurant, and listen to stories.

Currently, such primary education costs a California family an average of $4,022 a year. An initiative on the June ballot would put the state on the hook to pay the preschool bill.

Supporters hope that if voters pass Proposition 82, some 550,000 4-year-olds who live in California would have a chance to go to school. Currently, 1 in 5 children in the state attends school before kindergarten. However, the initiative, which was once popular with residents, is losing voter support amid a disagreement over which children would benefit.

If it were to pass, California would be the fourth state after Georgia, Florida, and Oklahoma to provide universal preschool for 4-year-olds. (Illinois has proposed doing so for 3- and 4-year-olds.) Of these states, California would make the largest investment.

"California is so huge, with such a large percentage of the nation's children, that everything it does in education has a huge impact," says Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research.

Prop. 82 would create a 3-hour daily program for 180 days a year with new teacher qualifications and curriculum standards. Out are regimented, one-size-fits-all approaches, say teachers. In are individualized and "experiential" learning methods. "If they are interested in it, we will do it, says director/teacher Michelle Ventimiglia at the Family Nurturing Center. "If they are not, we won't."

Universal preschool in California would be voluntary and expensive. The money will come from a 1.7 percent tax on individuals with incomes over $400,000 (or couples who earn $800,000 or more). Prop. 82 is expected to generate about $2.1 billion to $2.4 billion annually, providing $24 billion over a decade.

The financial boost could improve academic achievement in California schools, which once ranked No. 1 in scholastic aptitude test scores, and now is 45th in reading skills, say teachers unions, politicians, and labor groups backing Prop. 82. Others dispute whether preschool will have a positive impact on student performance.

The new initiative would invest more than other states do in preschool, providing twice the amount of money as Florida. The teacher training component is modeled after Oklahoma's successful program. "Prop. 82 is very comprehensive. It's really going to improve the quality of teachers, their education and training, and school infrastructure ... this is no rickety program," says Mr. Barnett.

California, where 1 in 9 Americans lives, could become fertile ground for researchers to examine the effects of universal preschool. A RAND Corporation study last year showed that for each taxpayer dollar that's spent on universal preschool, the state can expect to save $2.62 on jails and special education. It also leads to fewer high school dropouts and requires fewer social services, the study found.

The initiative's opponents, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and taxpayer and consumer groups, say the money would be better spent on K-12 education. Research shows that universal preschool doesn't appear to raise test scores, and the benefit doesn't last past fourth grade for many children, they say.

Other analysts argue that Prop. 82 would take state money from K-12 schools, healthcare, and transportation.

"We estimate that Prop. 82 would reduce general fund revenues by billions of dollars during its first several years, with the amount of revenue loss increasing over time," said William Hamm, a former nonpartisan legislative analyst for California, in a recent report.

Among leading Democrats, support for the initiative is splitting. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D) and the two Democratic candidates for governor, Steve Westly and Phil Angelides, are backing it. Some state Democratic lawmakers, however, have withdrawn their support in light of new research. It shows that most of the cash benefits will go to the families who already pay for preschool, and not help poor children, says Bruce Fuller, an analyst for Policy Analysis for California Education.

"With the leadership split, it looks like some of the rank and file is following suit," says Mark DiCamillo, director of the California Field Poll. "Democrats really have to maintain their support for this to have a chance of passing."

The mixed messages are beginning to affect voters' opinions. A California Field Poll taken of likely voters between April 8 and 11 shows that a 21-point lead for the measure in March dwindled to 13 points, with 52 percent supporting the initiative and 39 percent opposing it. Nine percent are undecided.

Meanwhile, the initiative's sponsor, actor/director Rob Reiner, is mired in controversy about how Prop. 82 came to be on the ballot. While serving as chairman of First Five California Children and Families Commission, he is accused of taking $23 million of a tax-funded advertising campaign to tout preschool. The state auditor is investigating. In March, Mr. Reiner resigned his chairmanship.

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