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The Independent Institute
Commentary

Will Universal Preschool Give All Kids a Head Start?


Democratic activist and child advocate Rob Reiner has collected the million signatures that guarantee a place on California's June 2006 ballot for his "Preschool for All Act."

The initiative, which tax-funds preschool for all 4-year-old children in the state, is part of a larger move toward Universal Preschool. Several states, including Georgia and Oklahoma, have adopted the system; other states, including Florida and Arizona, are moving toward adoption.

Advocates view universal preschool as an educational "silver bullet" that also counters a slew of social ills including poverty, child abuse and crime.

Critics wonder why billions should be tossed at expanding a school system that is so grossly failing the children currently in its care. Both sides agree: universal preschool involves increasing government's "parental" role regarding children. It involves a new bureaucracy that focuses on 4-year-olds.

Universal preschool proposals can be confusing because its advocates often differ on key questions such as the source of funding, the inclusion of toddlers, and whether attendance would be compulsory. The proposals are also vague on the subject of privately run preschools as opposed to those programs run by the government. General agreement exists on two points however: preschool should be available to all; and, universal preschool benefits children.

If successful, California's high-profile campaign may set a standard for other states. Reiner's proposal is to fund universal preschool through a 1.7 percent increase in taxes on annual incomes of $400,000+ for individuals, $800,000+ for married couples; this would generate an estimated $2.4 billion per year. Attendance would be voluntary.

Reiner's campaign may also serve as a model on how to turn universal preschool advocacy into governmental reality. In 1997, Reiner founded the I Am Your Child Foundation (now Parents Action for Children) to fight "for issues such as early education." In 1998, Reiner campaigned successfully for Proposition 10, a ballot initiative to tax tobacco products in order to fund preschool programs.

That same year, a California Department of Education report called for a half-day of preschool for every 3 or 4-year-old by 2008. Two bills before the 1998 state legislature unsuccessfully attempted to establish the system. By 2004, Reiner and the California Teachers Association had qualified a universal preschool initiative for the ballot but ultimately withdrew it in a joint statement.

In short, California has a long history of activists working in concert with various bureaucracies in order to expand both the reach and the funding of the CDE.

As usual, statistics and studies have been flashed in support.

Reiner prominently cites a recent study by the RAND Corporation, "The Economics of Investing in Universal Preschool Education in California." The study states a hypothetical point with amazing precision, "Using our preferred assumptions, a one-year high-quality universal preschool program in California is estimated to generate about $7,000 in net present value benefits per child ... using a 3 percent discount rate. This equals a return of $2.62 for every dollar invested, or an annual rate of return of about 10 percent over a 60-year horizon."

How could anyone object to a system that makes money while helping children? The answer is "easily" and on several grounds.

First, questions have been raised about the RAND study's validity by both Princeton University and the Brookings Institution. Even if valid, however, the study focuses on "disadvantaged" children and its findings may not apply universally.

David Elkind, professor of child study at Tufts University, has criticized such "early intervention studies [that] have been uncritically appropriated for middle-class children by parents and educators."

Critics point to Head Start, a federal preschool program established in 1965. Head Start is merely one of the many local, state, and federal government plans that have funded preschool programs for 40 years.

And, yet, as the DC-think tank Cato Institute observes, "The most comprehensive synthesis of Head Start impact studies to date was published in 1985 by the Department of Health and Human Services. It showed that by the time children enter the second grade, any cognitive, social, and emotional gains by Head Start children have vanished ... The net gain to children and taxpayers is zero."

A California-based anti-universal preschool group — confusingly named "Universal Preschool.com" — argues that government preschooling actually harms children. For example, in her book "Home-Alone America: The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs, and Other Parent Substitutes," Mary Eberstadt offers evidence that children who are "institutionalized" at an early age develop a lessened ability to relate with peers, emotional problems like depression, and score lower on standardized tests.

Since universal preschool is both touted and criticized as a form of universal and tax-funded day-care, Eberstadt's analysis seems "on point."

Equally troubling is the possible impact of universal preschool on parental rights, especially the right of parents to determine the best education for their children.

Some universal preschool proposals call for mandatory attendance. For example, in 1999, former Vermont legislator Bill Suchmann introduced a bill to study the cost of compulsory preschool for both 3- and 4-year-olds. Other proposals verge on compulsion by insisting that universal preschool is necessary for all children. As Suchmann argued, "many children do not have parents available at home or even capable of appropriate intellectual stimulation."

Such demeaning views of parenthood only heighten fears of compulsory attendance even in proposals that are currently voluntary. Such fear is stoked by a raging debate in the U.K. over a bill based on research by its Department of Education. The bill would require children to enter a government program of supervision and education from birth.

This is the great danger: the presumption that government can raise children better than parents. If universal preschool is voluntary, then it may merely create another massive and ultra-expensive bureaucracy that accomplishes little.

If it is compulsory, then universal preschool will extend the government's usurpation of parenthood so that all 3- and 4-year-olds are under state supervision.


Wendy McElroy is a Research Fellow at The Independent Institute. Her books include the Independent Institute volumes, Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century, and Freedom, Feminism, and the State.

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