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The Angry Economist

What's Wrong With Proposition 82: Promises Of "Free" Pre-school And Other Myths
Posted by William P. McGowan, Ph. D. on Jun 4, 2006 - 7:15:00 PM

CALIFORNIA— Regular readers of this column know that I have a passion for children and Early Childhood Education. Based on that, one would assume that I strongly favor the passage of Proposition 82, the "universal" preschool initiative that would tax the rich in order to fund a preschool program for all four year olds in California.  The only problem is I fear that Proposition 82 is just another excuse to feed a public employees' union membership at the expense of the children.

For more than a decade, our society has been using "the children" for very adult purposes.  The Teacher's union is especially good at using the images of children and their monopoly on public education to tug at our heartstrings.  In their advertisements supporting Proposition 82, the California Teacher's Association (CTA) is once again promising all of these magical solutions if only society would support a new tax.

Let me be clear, early childhood education is important, and many kids in our society need it.  But what assurances do we have that the CTA and the State Department of Education aren't going to "do" to Early Childhood Education what they've already "done" to our kids' K through 12 education? 

Proponents of Proposition 82 keep citing study after study about all the positive impacts universal pre-school has for society.  The only problem is that the "studies" they keep citing are based on highly intensive programs funded at a much higher level than that promised by Proposition 82.  Programs like the Perry Preschool Project spent over $14,000 per student on health care, nutrition and all sorts of other social outreach programs designed to stabilize the homes of at risk youths.  And this was in the 1970s!   

Proposition 82 promises Perry Preschool results without the same kind of investment.  Like Proposition 82, 1998's First Five Initiative was based on the best of intentions.  Seven years and almost $4 billion in cigarette taxes later, many early childhood educators feel that while some of the money collected on the children's behalf did some good, too much of it went to re-inventing the wheel: studying problems we already knew existed and a county-by-county bureaucracy. 

Economically, the problem with Proposition 82 is that it is terrible public policy. Building on public envy as a means of advancing their cause, advocates of Proposition 82 target "the rich" to pay for everyone else's "free" preschool.  Depending on a tiny slice of taxpayers to fund statewide programs is a recipe for budgetary disaster. That's how California ended up in its last budget crisis.

And then there are those nagging questions.  What happens if all the money raised by "the rich" doesn't cover Proposition 82's proposed budget?   Will California scale back the program?  With CTA backing it, don't count on it.  More likely, as the number of "rich" people figure out a way to dodge this new tax, the CTA and their friends in the legislature will shift the burden to the people who pay for everything else, the middleclass. 

Finally, there's the target.  We already know that the kids who need preschool most are a relatively small group of poor children who reside in the inner city, so why are we building a state-wide program when a highly focused one would do more good? The answer is that no one would vote to help the poor, but Reiner and Company know that if they dress this pig up as "free day care" for the middle-class (paid for by the rich), they may have a winner.

For the children, let's hope they're wrong.  Vote no on Proposition 82.



Cliffside Malibu




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