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Defeat of Calif. Preschool Initiative Is Major Disappointment for Advocates

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The defeat of the Preschool for All initiative in California this week is unlikely to slow the pace at which public preschool programs have been growing in other states, experts said. Still, the outcome was a major disappointment for its backers in the Golden State.

California voters decided in the June 6 statewide primary not to tax the state’s wealthiest residents in order for all of the state’s 4-year-olds to attend preschool for free. More than 60 percent of those who went to the polls voted against the measure, which would have added a 1.7 percent income tax on individuals making at least $400,000 and couples earning more than $800,000 a year.

Walter S. Gilliam, an associate research scientist at the Yale University Child Study Center, said he didn’t think the proposition’s failure would have much of an impact on the pace of pre-K growth in other states.

“At this point, there are many people around the nation who are convinced of the benefits of early education, and will continue to advocate for early education within their states and localities regardless of the outcome in California,” he said. “Voters seem to care more about what they perceive as benefits of early education in their own state and town, not what they perceive to be benefits in someone else’s state or town.”

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The Preschool for All initiative, which was listed as Proposition 82 on the ballot, initially led in the polls, but eventually succumbed to months of debate over the benefits of such a program as well as controversy involving the plan’s chief proponent, actor and director Rob Reiner.

“The opposition did a very good job of scaring people,” said Susanna Cooper, a spokeswoman for Preschool California, an advocacy organization that supported the measure.

The “No on 82” campaign argued that Proposition 82 would create a new bureaucracy, that parents would be charged for the program if tax funds fell short, and that the program would somehow take funds away from the state’s K-12 public schools.

In other outcomes from Tuesday’s election, voters defeated a $600 million library bond that would have paid for the construction and expansion of public libraries throughout California. The initiative, put on the ballot by the state legislature, was meant to strengthen school literacy programs. The measure was defeated, with 53 percent voting against and 47 percent voting in favor.

In the Democratic primary, voters chose state Treasurer Phil Angelides over state Controller Steve Westly to take on Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who easily won his primary, in the general election in November.

Shifting Opinions

Both of the Democratic gubernatorial candidates favored the universal preschool plan, while Gov. Schwarzenegger opposed it because it would increase taxes. While it’s unclear whether the governor’s support would have made a difference in the outcome of Proposition 82, the expansion or creation of such programs in other states has often been led by governors and other political leaders.

Polling data released just before the vote showed that only about 41 percent said they were still in favor of the plan, compared with 52 percent in an April poll.

Support for the plan started to decline after Mr. Reiner—who sponsored a successful ballot initiative for children’s programs in 1998—resigned from his position in March as the chairman of the California Children and Families Commission, which oversees the programs created by the 1998 measure.

Earlier this year, the commission launched a pro-preschool advertising campaign, raising questions among Republican legislators and advocates of low taxes over whether Mr. Reiner was using those ads as a subtle attempt to sway voter opinion in favor of Proposition 82.

Mr. Reiner maintained that he was not involved in developing the ads, and that he didn’t do anything wrong. Still, he stepped back from the limelight in the final weeks of the campaign to avoid being a distraction. A state agency is already preparing to audit the commission.

Bruce Fuller, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley—who parted ways with many colleagues in his opposition to the initiative—said the ethical questions involving Mr. Reiner may have played a part in its defeat. But they certainly weren’t the only factor, he said.

“It’s encouraging that people aren’t swayed by TV ads,” he said, referring to pro-initiative spots touting the benefits of preschool programs.

In a post-election interview, Mr. Fuller added that the initiative was largely led by a “small elite circle” that ignored the grassroots history of early-childhood education services in California and throughout the country. Mr. Fuller opposed the plan because of the requirements it would have placed on existing pre-K providers and, he added, because it mostly would have helped middle-class families who can already afford to pay for preschool programs.

The campaign tried to rise above the concerns over Mr. Reiner and continued to promote the findings of studies showing how beneficial an expansion of prekindergarten could be, not just for children, but also for the state’s economy.

A week before the election, Martin Carnoy, an education and economics professor at Stanford University, released a study showing that the initiative, if passed, had the potential to create 20,000 to 40,000 new jobs and could generate $3.5 billion in economic activity by 2016.

Other Options

Proposition 82, however, isn’t the only plan on the table for increasing the percentage of California 4-year-olds who attend pre-K programs.

In his 2007 budget proposal announced last month, Gov. Schwarzenegger included a $50 million plan to expand the state’s existing public preschool program for children from low-income families who live in neighborhoods with low-performing schools. The expenditure would be the first in a three-year effort to build on the state’s current pre-K program, which now serves about 80,000 children in school districts, child-care centers and Head Start programs.

The governor’s targeted approach, however, is different from what supporters of Proposition 82 advocate.

In a June 1 editorial for the San Francisco Chronicle, David L. Kirp, a public policy professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and Deborah Stipek, the dean of education at Stanford University, wrote that simply targeting preschool to the most disadvantaged children “ignores the gigantic waiting lists in many communities, the low quality of a large proportion of the preschool programs that California’s children attend, the sacrifices many middle-income families make to send their children to preschool and the economic segregation that targeted programs create.”

They wrote that well-designed preschool programs should be treated as kindergarten—“something that’s meant for everyone, rather than a means-tested benefit such as food stamps or a welfare check.”

Ms. Cooper said she’s glad that the governor has made a “gesture toward preschool,” but is discouraged because it “funds more of the same” types of programs.

The silver lining in last week’s defeat, she added, is that early-childhood education will continue to be part of the discussion over how to improve schools.

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