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Published in Print: January 25, 2006, as Californians to Vote on Reiner’s Pre-K Plan

Californians to Vote on Reiner’s Pre-K Plan

Gov. Schwarzenegger is facing challenges to his own 2002 plan.

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A pair of major California education initiatives that have succeeded in generating grassroots support are facing new hurdles.

Critics of the actor-director Rob Reiner’s latest early-childhood ballot initiative are fine-tuning their case for defeating the measure on the June 6 statewide ballot.

Meanwhile, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is facing opposition to full funding for a 2002 ballot initiative, which he spearheaded during his own days as an actor, that aims to expand tutoring, homework-assistance, and enrichment programs.

Both Hollywood veterans have seen their political status rise with the success of their education proposals, though neither has seen his plan fully realized.

Mr. Reiner—who is now almost as well known for his political activism as for his moviemaking and his TV role in the 1970s sitcom “All in the Family”—says his Preschool for All measure would open pre-K classrooms across the state to all 4-year-olds, regardless of their parents’ income.

The California secretary of state’s office announced Jan. 13 that the measure had qualified for the ballot.

If the voters approve the plan, individuals making more than $400,000 a year and married couples earning more than $800,000 a year would be taxed an additional 1.7 percent to pay for the $2.3 billion-a-year program.

“This is truly no child left behind. This levels the playing field,” the San Jose Mercury News quoted Mr. Reiner as saying in November when he announced that he was near the 1 million signatures needed to qualify the measure for the ballot.

If the proposal passes, it would help make preschool available to families who earn too much to qualify for programs such as Head Start, but who don’t make enough to afford private preschools, Mr. Reiner says.

In 1998, he led the successful Children and Families initiative, which imposed a 50-cent-per-pack tobacco tax, much of which is already being been spent on preschool.

The new initiative calls for a half-day program—offered by private and public preschool providers—to be taught by teachers who would eventually be required to earn a bachelor’s degree and have training in early-childhood education. The California Department of Education would set standards for the program, and county superintendents of schools would be in charge of local implementation and facilities.

Hurting Private Preschools?

But opponents say the Preschool for All initiative is poorly designed and would hurt private providers, because, if they receive state money, they would have to require their teachers to meet new credentialing requirements and probably pay them the same salaries earned by K-12 teachers.

“The real victims would be low- to middle-class women who run nearly all private early-care centers that comprise 70 percent of California’s child-care industry,” Shikha Dalmia and Lisa Snell—both from the free-market-oriented Reason Foundation in Los Angeles—wrote in a commentary that appeared last month in The Wall Street Journal Online.

Bruce Fuller, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said in an interview that the plan could drive private preschools that didn’t participate out of business because they could no longer compete with public preschools.

In Florida and Georgia—two other states with “universal” pre-K programs—private centers have often complained that they can’t afford to take part in the state programs because the per-pupil payments do not cover the true costs of instruction. At the same time, it’s hard for them to compete with free programs.

Mr. Fuller added that the initiative might also limit parental choice. “It will centralize learning philosophies and classroom curriculum in Sacramento, constraining options for families,” he said.

Others contend that Mr. Reiner’s plan could steer corporations—and their highest-paid employees—away from California because of the tax increases.

The California Chamber of Commerce has taken a formal stand against the measure. While its board of directors expressed its support for preschool, it concluded that the initiative process “is not the appropriate mechanism to achieve this laudable goal.”

Mari Condron, the spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, countered that the measure would give the state an advantage in the global economy. “Children who go to preschool grow up to become more productive workers who earn better wages and contribute to a stronger economy,” she said. “It’s a sound investment. Period.”

Governor’s Initiative

Gov. Schwarzenegger hasn’t taken a public position on Mr. Reiner’s preschool initiative, but he has been stumping for his own program for children already in school, called the After School Education and Safety Act.

The Republican is focusing on his fiscal 2007 budget proposal to spend $428 million to fully fund the program, which was created following his successful 2002 ballot initiative.

The goal of the program is to provide tutoring, homework aid, and other forms of educational enrichment before and after school for children in kindergarten through the 9th grade.

Under the initiative, which helped propel Mr. Schwarzenegger into the state’s political limelight the year before his election as governor, spending on the program is tied to California’s overall revenue.

With state finances in the doldrums in recent years, the legislature was able to put off fully funding the program. But with the state projecting fiscal 2006 revenues to be 6 percent above initial estimates, the amount that the governor is seeking for the after-school effort next year is some 3½ times the $122 million currently allotted.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers as well as the state legislative analyst’s office, however, have suggested delaying full funding for that program in order to give the legislature as much budget flexibility as possible.

State Legislative Analyst Elizabeth Hill has recommended putting off full funding for the program. In her analysis of the budget, she said the governor’s spending proposals move “the state in the wrong direction in terms of reaching its long-term goal of getting its fiscal house in order.” Ms. Hill said the governor should focus on paying down debt instead of “making expansive new commitments.”

Mr. Schwarzenegger, who is up for re-election this year, says he is unwilling to agree to any changes in the law that would reduce mandated funding levels.

“These funds will be used for activities that help our kids become better readers, learn how to use computers, participate in exercise programs, get assistance with their homework, and have a safe, productive place to go after school,” he said in a Jan. 4 statement.

Increasing Participation

Mr. Reiner, meanwhile, could get help from local chambers of commerce for his Preschool for All plan. Many of them see the plan as a significant step forward in a state where preschool partici- pation has lagged behind that of other states.

According to the most recent annual prekindergarten report from the National Institute for Early Education Research, in New Brunswick, N.J., fewer than 10 percent of California’s 4-year-olds attend a state-financed preschool program.

California state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell has also been a vocal supporter of expanding early-childhood education beyond the state’s current program aimed at children from low-income families. He has endorsed Mr. Reiner’s proposal.

“[We] have a pernicious achievement gap that is leaving too many of our students far behind,” he said recently when the Santa Monica, Calif.-based RAND Corp. released a report focusing on the long-term benefits of preschool. “I’m convinced, and the research shows, that preschool for all is our best hope for eliminating this gap and providing all students with a real opportunity to succeed in the world.”

The Preschool for All measure is Mr. Reiner’s second attempt to put a universal-preschool initiative on the state ballot. In 2004, facing strong opposition from the business community, Mr. Reiner withdrew a proposed measure that would have taxed businesses to pay for the preschool program.

PHOTO: Actor and director Rob Reiner, center, carries a box to a news conference on Nov. 17, 2005, that contains petitions backing his universal preschool plan, which goes to voters on June 6.
—File photo by Paul Sakuma/AP

Vol. 25, Issue 20, Pages 16,20

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