Meathead Is at It Again


Meathead Is at It Again

California's universal preschool plan will hurt businesses, teachers

Celebrities with a social conscience are a growing breed in Hollywood. But it would be nice if they’d stick to whales and landmines and leave our children alone.

Unfortunately, California parents have no such luck. Movie-director-turned-child-advocate Rob Reiner recently acquired a million signatures to put his Preschool for All initiative on the California ballot next June, his second attempt to launch a “universal” preschool program. The initiative would impose a 1.7% income tax on couples making over $800,000 a year ($400,000 for individuals) to offer three hours of free preschool for all the state’s 4-year-olds.

This soak-the-rich scheme would put $2.3 billion into the state’s coffers that Mr. Reiner might himself control if he unseats Arnold Schwarzenegger as the next governor of California. (The gubernatorial ambitions of Mr. Reiner – who once played Meathead alongside Archie Bunker in “All in the Family” – are an open secret in the Golden State).

But the people most dreading Mr. Reiner’s latest foray are not the super-rich, who would no doubt find ways to dodge – by moving out of the state if necessary – what would effectively be a 19% increase in their tax rate. The real victims would be low- to middle-income women who run nearly all private early-care centers that comprise 70% of California’s child-care industry. The onerous credentialing requirements and union mandates that the initiative would trigger would devastate the industry’s entrepreneurs without improving instruction one iota.

Consider Cynthia Leahy, founder of Montessori Schools of Fremont. She started her first center 30 years ago in a small Sunday school with nothing except her Montessori training and her “sweat equity,” she says. From these humble beginnings, she has created a thriving little Montessori empire consisting of five schools catering to 400 kids of all age groups from infants to high-schoolers. She employs 68 people, 80% of whom are minorities, a reflection of the predominantly nonwhite, professional, immigrant community that is so typical of Silicon Valley. But she fears that the Reiner initiative would make it impossible for private Montessori schools to survive and throw her life’s work into jeopardy – not to mention the livelihood of her staff.

The initiative would require all preschool teachers to obtain both a bachelor’s degree and a one-year certificate in early childhood development by 2014. All of Ms. Leahy’s teachers already have bachelor’s and even master’s degrees, followed by a very intense training in the Montessori method. Asking these teachers to spend thousands of dollars to return to school for a certificate that is of zero value in their classrooms is ridiculous. Ms. Leahy fears that this would prompt moms on her staff to quit along with others who are close to retirement, leaving her with a disproportionate number of younger, inexperienced teachers.

But Dennis Vicars, CEO of the Professional Association for Childhood Education (PACE) – an organization that also advocates universal preschool but by enhancing parental choice – has even deeper fears for the fate of private schools. He notes that the initiative would potentially make Ceera (California Educational Employment Relations Act) – the California labor law that is even more friendly to unions than its notorious federal corollary – binding on private schools that accept any initiative funds. These schools would be forced to pay wages on the K-12 teacher scale negotiated through a mandatory collective bargaining process, and they might even have to submit any disciplinary action against employees to union-prescribed arbitration.

In other words, these schools would end up paying higher wages for less experienced staff over whom they would have little control. Fully private schools like Ms. Leahy’s can avoid union and other government meddling by foregoing initiative funds – at the risk, of course, of being driven out of business by public schools offering fully subsidized care.

Women like Iris Fox, who runs California Young World in Sunnyvale, don’t even have this Hobson’s choice. Her school, though private, is a nonprofit that receives government grants for low-income kids. It is therefore automatically subject to all state regulations. This means that if Mr. Reiner succeeds, Ms. Fox would have to ask all her teaching aides – who face no government requirements right now – to spend two years obtaining an associate’s degree, as required by the initiative. This would be difficult for many of them because they are immigrants who speak English only as a second language. Ms. Fox hires them expressly to help communicate with the polyglot m—lange of kids from Vietnam, India, Lebanon and China in her classrooms. These aides would find something else to do, she fears, leaving her much more dependent on staff that cannot fully connect with the kids.

Even more bizarrely, she points out, the regulations would impose a curious double standard, forcing her to pay more than twice as much to the preschool teaching staff, which would be covered by the initiative’s collective bargaining mandate, than the regular staff, which would not.

California’s teacher unions lobbied for the collective bargaining provisions in the initiative, although they are still withholding their formal blessing to express their displeasure at its failure to prohibit private participation in the program, as Mr. Reiner’s previous preschool initiative did. But given how difficult it would be for private providers to meet the credentialing and salary requirements, the current initiative may have the same effect.

Driving out women and minorities, closing down private providers, and delivering preschools to a union monopoly would of course all be worth it if, in the end, children were better off. But studies have found virtually no gains on cognitive outcomes for preschoolers taught by teachers with bachelor’s degrees.

But the most powerful evidence that Mr. Reiner’s requirements would, if anything, hurt rather than help California’s kids is California’s K-12 public school system itself. After all, it is run by teachers with precisely the kind of fancy education degrees drawing union wages that Mr. Reiner wants in preschools. California’s fourth graders’ reading and math scores are 47th among the 50 states on national tests. Furthermore, a study by the Rand Corporation this year found California’s children trailing on every objective measurement of student achievement – even after controlling for its disproportionate number of low-income, minority kids.

Mr. Reiner is a fine film director. But this initiative is a turkey, not a blockbuster. It would be better for California’s 4-year-olds if he’d leave his initiative on the cutting room floor.

Ms. Dalmia is a senior analyst and Ms. Snell the director of education policy at Reason Foundation, a California-based free-market think tank.