SACRAMENTO – Former television actor Rob Reiner has a dream. It is of a huge government-run preschool for all of California. Right now state legislators are investigating how Reiner has used state tax monies to promote his dream. And on June 6, California voters will decide whether they want the Reiner plan. They have much to consider—its formidable costs, the effectiveness of preschool in general, and whether the true beneficiaries might be adults rather than children.
Rob Reiner is the child of Carl Reiner, the show-biz magnate who conveniently cast his son in two movies during the sixties. Rob Reiner made his television debut as a motorcycle hood in a "Partridge Family" episode in 1970. The following year Norman Lear cast him as doctrinaire liberal Michael Stivik in "All in the Family," where Archie Bunker dubbed him "Meathead." His fame secured, Reiner went on to direct such movie hits as When Harry Met Sally and A Few Good Men. He has also made a mark in politics.
Reiner contrived the California Children and Families First initiative of 1998, also known as the tobacco-tax initiative, which spawned the California Children and Families Commission. Reiner backed loser Al Gore in 2000 and has declined to run for governor of California. But the former actor played a role in defeating a California ballot initiative, backed by Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, that would have required unions to get permission from members before using their dues for political purposes. Now Reiner is taking on early childhood with his Preschool for All Initiative, Proposition 82 on the June ballot.
The measure mandates a full year of government-run preschool, three hours a day, for all four-year-olds in California whose parents chose to enroll them. Prop 82 mandates credentialed preschool teachers and college-educate aides. The plan would cost $2.4 billion, to be raked in by raising the top state income-tax rate two points to 11 percent on individuals making $400,000 or more and couples making $800,000 or more.
The Reiner camp argues that the high costs are justified because they will save the state money in other ways. They cite a RAND study which claims that for every dollar spent on preschool, society will receive $2.62 in long-term benefits such as better student performance and less criminal activity. Michael Hiltzik, liberal business writer of the Los Angeles Times, weighed the study and found it wanting.
Hiltzik noted that the RAND estimates are based on a preschool program in Chicago for a "homogeneous disadvantaged population," and that the level of parental involvement and provision of services are unlike those envisioned by the Reiner initiative in key ways. For example, the Chicago program provides health screening, speech therapy, meals, home visits and continual and intensive parental involvement efforts. The Reiner initiative funds none of these. The Chicago program also estimates its accomplishments with long-term tracking of students. The benefits of the Reiner program are essentially a wish list.
Proposition 82, wrote Hiltzik, is "another attempt at ballot-box budgeting featuring misleading PR and misguided pied-piper appeal." But his critique did not cause the Reiner camp to drop the RAND propaganda, not their only ammunition. The Reiner forces like to cite Georgetown professor William Gormley who conducted research on Oklahoma's universal preschool program.
“A universal pre-K program may or may not be the best path to school readiness,” wrote Gormley, hardly a ringing endorsement from a supporter of universal preschool. If there are gains, they may be temporary.
In January, researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, issued studies concluding that whatever student achievement gains can be attributed to preschool attendance largely evaporate after a few years in elementary school. This "fade-out effect" leaves scholars questioning the long-term benefits claimed by the Reiner camp. Those who do see benefits also find a dark side to preschool.
How much is too much? The Influence of Preschool Centers on Children's Development Nationwide, a study by researchers at UC Berkeley and Stanford, released late last year, found that pre-school boosts language and math skills in middle-class children. On the other hand, the study found that preschool can hinder children's social development. (The prospect of abuse is another consideration. Preschool students in Kansas City and Las Vegas have had their mouths taped up by teachers and pre-school employees.)
Co-author of the study Bruce Fuller, associate professor of education at UC Berkeley, does not believe that, despite modest gains, universal preschool is the way to use scarce resources. If universal preschool helps everybody, Fuller argues, then it would not close the achievement gap between low-income children and their middle- and upper-class counterparts. Fuller also dismissed claims that a four-year degree and special credential for preschool teachers, which Proposition 82 requires, will further advance child development. But it seems clear that the measure would advance the interests of various adults.
Public employee unions, still empowered to spend members dues on politics thanks in part to Rob Reiner, would organize California preschool teachers. Like their K-12 colleagues such teachers would be practically impossible to fire. Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, a prominent California Democrat, believes that the union realities would also make it hard for operators of independent preschools. He told reporters that Proposition 82 has flaws that "are fatal." He doesn't object to higher taxes but believes the revenues would be better spent in other ways.
The question of costs and revenues casts a particular light on already existing preschools plans such as Ready to Start. This program has been operating for two years in two Kern County districts in partnership with local businesses, education agencies and colleges.
The five-week summer program uses existing facilities and spends $350 per child. (The tab for Reiner's plan is more than $8,000 per child.) The program uses a structured academic program, tests children before and after the session, and tracks them as they progress through elementary school. Children increased their scores by the end of the program and retained the skills through kindergarten. Kern County education officials met with Reiner and briefed him on Ready to Start. The former television actor failed to kindle and stuck with his more costly one-year program, which deployed promotional help from taxpayers, not exactly with their consent.
The task of the California Children and Families First, spawned by Reiner's 1998 tobacco-tax initiative, was to educate parents about existing programs for their children. Around 2002, the Commission began a quest to push universal preschool. The First 5 Commission, which Rob Reiner chairs, spent $23 million in tobacco-tax revenue on ads promoting preschool in the months before Prop 82 qualified for the June ballot.
"It's hard to fathom how a Hollywood actor-director-activist with an idealistic reputation for caring about children could make the transition to sleazy pol so quickly, but that's just what Rob Reiner has done," editorialized the San Diego Union-Tribune on February 23. "His role in orchestrating the use of millions in taxpayer money to push his latest cause is beyond slimy and way past arrogant." The editorial noted that the television ad campaign stopped after the measure qualified and that the highly paid consultants then went to work for the campaign pushing the initiative.
"This reeks," said the Union-Tribune. "The use of $23 million in public funds for a personal crusade merits a criminal investigation." The next day, February 24, Reiner took a leave of absence from the First 5 Commission. In March legislators began to call for an audit.
Proposition 82 remains on the ballot and a March 7 Field Poll showed 55 percent of likely voters supporting the measure, with 34 percent opposed. A January poll by the Public Policy Institute of California poll that found 63 percent of Californians support Proposition 82.
Californians will take the only poll that really counts on June 6. That will come after they assess whether a high-tax state in financial difficulties, which performs poorly in K-12 education, should increase taxes and spend billions to add a new level of children to the ranks. Preschool for All's benefits for children remain dubious but high costs are certain. So are along obvious financial and political benefits for powerful public employee unions, the core of the Democratic Party. Rob Reiner has kept things all in the family.
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