Will Universal Preschool Give All Kids a Head Start?

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activist and child advocate Rob
has collected the million
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

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
, 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

In short, California
has a long history of activists working in concert with various
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
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
— 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

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.

1, 2005

McElroy [send her mail]
is the editor of ifeminists.com
and a research fellow for The
Independent Institute
in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and
editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty
for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century

(Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002).

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