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The Case Against Universal Preschool in California

Lisa Snell
February 22, 2006

Introduction

On August 23rd, 2005, the Institute for American’s Future and the Center for American Progress called for $325 billion of added federal education spending over the next decade, including more than $9 billion a year to create a nationwide, universal preschool program.1 Although the coalition has not released a specific plan, typical universal preschool proposals call for replacing the private parentdriven preschool system with a taxpayer-funded system that would likely add one or two years of “voluntary” preschool for all children onto the current K-12 public education system. Nationwide, at least 40 states provide funding for preschool programs, and at least 28 considered legislation to expand state-funded preschool programs in 2005.2 Three states— Georgia, Oklahoma, and Florida—offer universal preschool.

California may become the national model for universal preschool. The California Preschool for All Act, filed with the state attorney general on June 20, 2005, calls for a voluntary, half-day preschool program that would be offered free of charge to California’s four-year olds. While this sounds like a laudable goal, this voluntary program would change the current structure of the mixed-provider market that includes a diverse group of public and private preschools into a statecontrolled monopoly. Universal preschool will expand government provision of education, destroy the private market of preschool, and expand the power of teachers’ unions. Taxpayers would be forced to subsidize not only the poor but also the middle class and wealthy.

According to California’s “Preschool for All” supporters, universal preschool would enroll 70 percent of the 550,000 four year olds in California every year when fully implemented. That would be 385,000 preschoolers. According to California’s Legislative Analyst Office, 66 percent of California four year olds are already enrolled in preschool. That is 363,000 preschoolers. If California’s $2.4 billion Preschool for All initiative meets its goal of 70 percent enrollment, just 22,000 new four-year-olds would enroll, meaning it wouldcost taxpayers a whopping $109,000 per new preschooler.

There is little empirical evidence to demonstrate any lasting educational or socioeconomic benefit of government- run preschool programs. In addition, it’s clear that state-run schools are already failing to manage their existing programs. Supporters radically underestimate the net cost of this new program, which would require mandatory credentialing under the auspices of the bureaucracy of the county superintendents of schools. And high costs are only the beginning. The current private preschool market offers an array of choices. Government preschool is a formulated, one-size-fits-all approach to education that institutionalizes young children at their most impressionable ages. This is a move backwards that should be avoided.

California’s Preschool for All initiative would be financed by a 1.7 percent tax increase on individuals who earn over $400,000 (or couples earning over $800,000), pushing the tax rate on upper income families to a national high of 12 percent.5 This new tax represents an 18 percent tax increase on wealthy Californians. With wealthy Californians already leaving the state in search of lower tax rates in states like Nevada, Texas, and Washington, adding an additional tax burden will exacerbate the problem. The last time California raised income tax to this level, it contributed to a five-year recession.

California currently spends more than $3 billion a year on subsidized preschool for low-income children.7 A recent report by the District Attorney in charge of welfare fraud in California reports that rampant fraud is costing California taxpayers as much as $1.5 billion a year—half of the welfare money it pays to needy families for child care.8 In Los Angeles, for example, officials estimate Los Angeles County loses 40 to 50 percent of its $600 million-a-year child-care allocation to fraud. Perhaps we should reform the $3 billion we already spend on child care to direct more resources to serve disadvantaged children.

In light of the resources we already spend on early childhood education and the competing demands for scarce resources from children’s health insurance, transportation, local government, and K-12 education, it is a very difficult position to argue that more public dollars should replace private spending for preschool.


Lisa Snell is Director of Education

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