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Opinion
Early Childhood Commentary

The California Preschool Initiative

By Nina S. Rees — July 11, 2006 3 min read

The resounding defeat of California’s Proposition 82, which sought to offer all 4-year-olds in California access to free half-day preschool, appears to be a big blow to advocates of universal prekindergarten. (“Calif. Voters Reject Universal Pre-K Initiative,” June 14, 2006.) The ambitious, $2.4 billion ballot proposal, which was defeated by a 22-point margin, would have energized legislative efforts supported by governors in more than two dozen states. If these efforts are going to succeed, advocates of universal prekindergarten need to learn from the California defeat and draft programs that avoid its pitfalls, while crafting better and smarter education policy for their constituents.

Universal-preschool advocates will have a better chance to win their debate in the court of public opinion if they place a higher premium on offering high-quality prekindergarten to low-income children.

The first problem with Proposition 82 was simple: It was an initiative, and initiatives like this tend to fail. Research by Stanford University’s Terry M. Moe shows that “unless the issue is familiar to voters and fairly simple for them to evaluate—as is the case, for instance, with the death penalty, assisted suicide, gambling—a strong opponent (if there is one) can almost always defeat it, often by big margins.” Moe has found that many initiatives have been defeated not because the positions being advocated were unpopular, but rather because when a brand-new and unfamiliar issue is being introduced to voters, “a well-heeled opponent can unleash a media campaign that generates doubt and uncertainty among many voters and causes them to fall back on the status quo (even if they don’t like it much).”

Indeed, Proposition 82 was opposed by a number of the state’s leading daily newspapers, as well as influential think tanks, business leaders, and politicians. But whether future efforts for universal prekindergarten are designed as ballot initiatives or legislative efforts, there are certain steps that advocates should be sure to follow.

As a first step, they need to craft policies based on sound research. While there are many good reasons to support free preschool for all children, the most robust research points only to the long-term benefits of high-quality preschool for low-income children. In addition, the enactment of the federal No Child Left Behind Act elevates the need for low-income students to start school “ready to learn.” The law holds schools serving a high percentage of low-income students accountable for raising student achievement on an annual basis, starting in the 3rd grade.

Universal-preschool advocates will have a better chance to win their debate in the court of public opinion if they place a higher premium on offering high-quality prekindergarten to low-income children, and ensure that the bulk of the funding in their proposals is targeted at these students.

Second, before calling for higher taxes to fund universal-prekindergarten plans—Proposition 82 was going to be financed through tax increases on individuals earning more than $400,000 per year—advocates should look to tap into existing resources offered by welfare programs, child care, and Head Start. In California, for example, more than $700 million of state and federal money is already spent on preschool education, with much of it directed at low-income children. Better aligning these funds to serve the educational needs of poor children will reduce the price tag of any new initiative and demonstrate to policymakers (and fiscal conservatives) that the proposal is not yet another liberal gimmick.

Finally, universal-prekindergarten advocates need to offer real choices to parents. Polling on this issue consistently shows strong support for choice in prekindergarten, and Proposition 82 advocates emphasized “choice,” but in reality the measure would have empowered county superintendents to implement the program—a bit like asking Starbucks to contract with or send its consumers to Caribou Coffee and the local coffee shop down the street. A successful universal-prekindergarten program needs to be administered by an entity that has no vested interest in competing for students, and should be focused on teaching parents about how to make educated choices.

Universal prekindergarten is a worthy idea that can help reduce the achievement gaps that persist in American education. But unless its supporters learn the lessons from the defeat in California, their wish for the universal schooling of 3- and 4-year-olds will remain just that—a wish.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 12, 2006 edition of Education Week as The California Preschool Initiative

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