HOLLYWOOD— The powerful Hollywood actor-director was not in a happy mood. It was June 6th and Rob Reiner's Proposition 82, which would have created a "universal" preschool for California, was going down in flames.
In the end, the initiative losing by a full twenty points, not even close. In the middle of Reiner's quasi-concession speech was a challenge to his political opponents. "Okay, you don't agree with me," the actor-director whined, "so what's YOUR ideas?" While some would dismiss this as merely the election eve ranting of someone who didn't get what he wanted, I take Mr. Reiner at his word.
It is important to recognize that while I heartily disagree with Reiner's top-down approach, we DO AGREE on several important basic facts about early childhood education. First and foremost, we agree that QUALITY is the most important element in early childhood education. Second, we agree that California doesn't have that many quality child care centers, less than 50% of childcare centers catering to 3 to 5 years old meet the minimum standards, while the number for centers catering to infants (6 weeks to two years) is less than 8%.
If you are a parent with a kid in childcare now, do the math.
The common element to poor quality revolves around one thing, money. While there are many areas of life where money is NOT the solution, this is clearly not one of them. If we increased pay for early childhood teachers we would do two things simultaneously: we'd slow the rate of workforce turnover and we'd force society to accept the true cost of sending kids to childcare.
Rob Reiner had it right when he first identified the importance of the first five years of development in his 1997 initiative aimed at improving awareness about the importance of quality childcare. Where he screwed up was after passing Proposition Ten (which created the First Five Commission) was that he thought too big and he thought too small.
Thinking too big came in the form of buying into the Sacramento-bureaucracy's idea that all things could be solved from on high inside the capitol beltway. While it has done some good, too much of the First Five Commission's $800 million a year budget is spent on administrators and not in the classroom.
This involves thinking small again. One program that has been a tremendous First Five success is the educational stipend for workers in the industry already. Right now, competition for these small sums is so popular that they are granted on a lottery basis, yet they show the greatest impact on the industry. Stipend recipients are more likely to stay in the industry, and improve the overall quality of the workforce. Micro-economic grants like these show the greatest return on investment, and therefore deserve more of that First Five budget.
Finally, Reiner and his crowd should think bigger by focusing on not on the tax payer's wallet, but their income tax return. One of the greatest barriers to raising the cost of childcare for parents (which translates into better pay for teachers) is that none of these costs are tax deductible. This keeps downward pressure on childcare pricing, which affects turnover, quality, etc.. First Five should campaign for dollar-for-dollar tax relief at both the state and federal levels for parents who send their kids to centers that meet minimum quality standards. Again, making people accept what quality costs.
These may not follow the state-centered approaches to "solving" the childcare problem Mr. Reiner tried in the past, but economically, they are much more likely to WORK. And in the end, isn't that what really counts?