The Angry Economist
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.
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