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Orange County Register

Don't Give Them Our Preschoolers

Rob Reiner's Preschool for All Act throws good money after bad

Lisa Snell
September 22, 2005

In the 2004-05 school year, 197 Orange County schools failed to meet "adequate yearly progress," according to federal guidelines requiring 20 percent to 26 percent of students at each school to score proficient in math and English. Those aren't exactly overreaching standards.

And yet, in Anaheim, the district missed federal targets for all but five schools. Similarly, in Santa Ana, 45 of 55 schools failed to make federal goals for math and English. In both Anaheim and Santa Ana, the entire school districts are labeled as "failing" under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

These kinds of persistently low academic scores call into question plans that would give Orange County school districts and the Orange County superintendent of schools even more responsibility for the academic achievement of our youngest students.

Filmmaker Rob Reiner and supporters are busily collecting signatures to qualify the California Preschool for All Act, a $2.5 billion initiative that would provide preschool for all 4-year-olds in the state, for the June 2006 ballot. (Yes, we're having yet another election next summer.)

Universal preschool for all kids sounds like an admirable goal, but this plan would institutionalize preschool, replacing the current system with a government-managed $2.5 billion per year entitlement program that needlessly subsidizes preschool.

According to Bruce Fuller, an education professor at UC Berkeley, the initiative, and $2.5 billion in taxpayer money, would increase preschool enrollment by 11 percent, from the current 64 percent to 75 percent.

While increased preschool enrollment is undoubtedly a good thing, increased government involvement is not.

Reiner's plan would turn over the existing, well-functioning preschool system that already includes school district centers, Montessori schools, home day-care centers, Head Start, church-based preschools, private and nonprofit centers, and parent co-ops into a dysfunctional state-controlled monopoly, run by the same county officials and superintendents who are failing to educate our K-12 students.

Which begs the question, do we really want to give these bureaucrats more responsibility?

The state controller has learned that a whopping 552 school districts overspent by a combined total of about $682 million in 2003-04 alone. Another 62 of the state's school districts say that they may not be able to pay the bills they currently owe. Since 1991, California taxpayers have spent almost $220 million in taxpayer money to bail out seven public school districts because of financial mismanagement and fraud by the very managers who would be in charge of the proposed preschool system.

The vision of a state preschool bureaucracy isn't just one possibility, it is the only possibility given the wording of the initiative. The Preschool for All Act substantially favors public schools over private preschool providers by mandating the use of existing appropriate public facilities (i.e. public schools) wherever possible and offering public schools $2 billion in new facility funding to help accommodate the growth. The initiative also requires that children have a preschool opportunity that is no farther away than the nearest public kindergarten. Again, this favors public schools located closest to eligible children and means trouble for many existing, successful preschools.

Oh, and then there's the teachers' union. The universal preschool plan says that salary levels would be required to follow the current K-12 salary schedule.

California's existing preschool market is healthy, with both public and private providers catering to the diverse needs of families. Given competing demands for scarce resources, and the state budget deficit, it is indefensible that public dollars would be used to replace private preschools. The plan seems even more mind-boggling when you learn we'd be handing over billions to a government-run bureaucracy that is clearly failing to educate our kids or account for the taxpayer dollars it gets now.

Lisa Snell is director of education and child welfare at Reason Foundation.


Lisa Snell is Director of Education


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