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Ploys for tots

National | Activists in several states are using questionable research to push for voluntary -- and, some fear, eventually mandatory -- tax-funded preschool for all children

Issue: "UN's abuse of power," July 24, 2004

WHAT'S THE SECRET TO academic success, a lucrative career, and staying out of prison? According to advertisements now running in California, it's preschool.

Television and radio spots sponsored by First 5 California, a tax-funded early-childhood commission headed by

actor-activist Rob Reiner, claim children who attend preschool perform better academically during their K-12 years. Such students also are more likely to attend college, land good jobs, avoid criminal activity, and even be happier than kids who don't attend preschool.

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True? Not according to groups such as the Cato Institute, which say little empirical evidence supports such claims. Still, the ads -- funded by Proposition 10, the Reiner-backed 1998 ballot measure that levied a 50-cent tax on every pack of cigarettes sold in California, generating $700 million annually -- are just one part of a multi-front Golden State push for "universal preschool."

Universal preschool, aka tax-funded public education for all young children whose parents want it, is an idea that's gaining momentum around the country: Some states, such as Florida, Georgia, New York, Illinois, New Jersey, and Oklahoma, have already established, or are launching, universal pre-kindergarten programs. The Massachusetts House last year approved a measure calling for universal preschool, and the Senate introduced its own plan in May.

Unlike tax-funded early childhood programs such as Headstart, where eligibility is based on economic need, advocates envision universal preschool as a nationwide public education system for all 3- and 4-year-olds. Supporters say that newly discovered science about early-life brain development makes such programs necessary, and that universal preschool will close learning gaps among young children and better prepare tots for the rigors of kindergarten.

But in California, the tax-funded push for free, voluntary preschool programs has conservatives worried that proponents are paving the way for mandatory nap time and finger painting. A year ago this month, First 5 earmarked $100 million in tobacco-tax money for "Preschool for All," a program to provide statewide free preschool. Since then the agency has funded thousands of free preschool slots in at least four California counties, including Santa Clara, where Mr. Reiner in June 2004 announced a five-year, $50 million commitment.

Meanwhile, voters this spring narrowly dodged a bullet that would have, via the fine print in a commercial property tax initiative, inserted universal preschool into the state constitution. And this month, the state Senate advanced a bill that would establish universal preschool. A similar measure is pending in the California House.

Under California bills AB56 and SB432, preschool wouldn't be mandatory -- yet. But critics say that the proposals will ultimately extend the reach of the state's dismal public-school systems -- at first tempting, then forcing, parents who can't afford private or home school to relinquish control of their young children to the state.

Karen Safrit, a stay-home mom in Santa Monica, Calif., doesn't think it will come to that. Her daughter Sadie, 4, attends a private preschool three days a week at Mt. Olive Lutheran Church. "It's preparing her for kindergarten," Mrs. Safrit says, "but making it positive so that she looks forward to school and learning . . . if you haven't done any preschool, [kindergarten] is a long, scary day."

Mrs. Safrit told WORLD she wouldn't mind paying more taxes if it meant other people's children could attend a quality, state-run preschool. But she is in the minority. A Public Agenda survey of parents with children age 5 and under found that more than seven in 10 said they -- not other taxpayers -- should pay for the care of their own children. Only 24 percent said other taxpayers should help foot the bill. Even among families earning less than $25,000 a year, nearly two-thirds (62 percent) said they, not other taxpayers, should pay for the cost of child care.

But when faced with such statistics, universal preschool boosters whip out statistics of their own. As with most educational issues, the universal preschool debate involves dueling research studies. In 2002, the Committee for Economic Development, an influential group of industry leaders and prominent academics, issued a report called Preschool for All: Investing in a Productive and Just Society.

The report, which reads like a pro-preschool manifesto, cites results at the Perry School, where researchers followed 123 African-American children in Ypsilanti, Mich., from age 3 through 41, beginning in 1962. Researchers selected all the kids from poverty-stricken neighborhoods in Ypsilanti's Perry School District, assigning some to a special preschool program, and others to a control group that did not attend preschool. The study found a positive correlation between preschool attendance and subsequent educational success, economic success in early adulthood, and a reduced number of criminal arrests throughout their lives.

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