Early Childhood

Calif. Voters Reject Universal Pre-K Initiative

By Linda Jacobson — June 13, 2006 6 min read
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The defeat of the Preschool for All initiative in California last week is unlikely to slow the pace at which public preschool programs have been growing in other states, national experts said. Still, the outcome was a major disappointment for its backers in the Golden State.

California voters decisively rejected the proposal on the June 6 primary-election ballot that would have taxed the state’s wealthiest residents so that all of its 4-year-olds could 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 failure of the initiative, Proposition 82, would have much 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.”

The Preschool for All initiative had drawn high levels of support in early public-opinion 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, the 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 campaign, dubbed No on 82, argued that the measure 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 money away from the state’s K-12 public schools.

In other outcomes from California’s elections last week, voters defeated a $600 million library bond that would have paid for the construction and expansion of public libraries throughout California. The proposal, put on the ballot by the legislature, was meant to strengthen school literacy programs. The vote tally showed 53 percent against the plan and 47 percent in favor.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell was re-elected to the nonpartisan office, winning 52 percent of the vote.

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

Shifting Opinions

Both of the Democratic candidates for governor 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 for Proposition 82, the expansion or creation of such programs in other states has often been led by governors and other top political leaders.

Polling data released just before the June 6 election showed that only about 41 percent of respondents said they were still in favor of the plan, compared with 52 percent in April and 55 percent in March.

Support for the plan started to decline when controversy prompted Mr. Reiner—who sponsored a successful ballot initiative for children’s programs in 1998—to resign in March as the chairman of the California Children and Families Commission, which administered the programs created under 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, a prominent Democratic activist, was using those ads in an 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 preparing to audit the commission.

While Mr. Reiner did not issue an official statement after the initiative’s defeat, Nathan James, the campaign spokesman, said that Mr. Reiner is at least pleased that the effort “started the discussion” about universal preschool in the state.

“He’s not going to go away in terms of advocating for kids,” Mr. James said.

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 such 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 would 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.

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.

Other Options

In his fiscal 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 commentary for the San Francisco Chronicle, David L. Kirp, a public-policy professor at UC-Berkeley, and Deborah Stipek, the dean of education at Stanford, 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 the way kindergarten is—“something that’s meant for everyone, rather than a means-tested benefit such as food stamps or a welfare check.”

Ms. Cooper of Preschool California said she was glad Mr. Schwarzenegger had made a “gesture toward preschool,” but was discouraged because his proposal “funds more of the same” types of programs.

A version of this article appeared in the June 14, 2006 edition of Education Week as Calif. Voters Reject Universal Pre-K Initiative

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