Calif. Preschool Initiative Heads to June Vote

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A proposed California voter initiative would provide free, universal preschool for all the state's 4-year-old children, should it win approval in a June vote. The initiative's supporters say it will improve the educational future of the California kids. But critics say it's an expensive and ineffective plan.


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.


And I'm Noah Adams.

Voters in California have just won ballot initiative to learn about this coming June. Proposition 82 would entitle every four year old to free preschool. The program would be paid for by raising taxes on the wealthy. The measure is the creation of filmmaker Rob Reiner. A few years ago, he convinced voters to raise cigarette taxes to pay for children's services. But this time, critics say Reiner's good intentions are misplaced.

NPR's Ina Jaffe reports.

INA JAFFE reporting:

At the Main Castle Learning Center in South Central L.A., every morning begins with a song.

Ms. IRENE BRYCE(ph) (Teacher, Main Castle Learning Center): (Singing) Good morning, everybody. How are you? Yes, fine. Good morning, everybody. How are you? Yes, fine.

JAFFE: As you can hear, teacher Irene Bryce's little students are all just fine. The vast majority are Latino, the sons and daughters of janitors and seamstresses, and other low-wage workers. They all attend the school for free. Their tuition is paid by a new Universal Preschool pilot project for Los Angeles County called L.A. UP. It could become a model for the state if Proposition 82 passes, says Graciela Italiano-Thomas, the chief executive.

Ms. GRACIELA ITALIANO-THOMAS (Chief Executive, Los Angeles Universal Preschool): because I think the plan is visionary, in that its universality is essential. If we're going to concentrate on quality, we really need to include all children and families.

JAFFE: Just a few thousand kids are enrolled right now. But to achieve the goal of Universal Preschool, the program would have to provide for 119,000 L.A. County four year olds. And Italiano-Thomas says L.A. UP can't achieve that on its own.

ITALIANO-THOMAS: This wonderful beginning will eventually not be sustainable if the proposition doesn't pass.

JAFFE: Supporters of Proposition 82 have raised at least $10 million to make sure it does pass. The backers are legion. They include the powerful California Teachers Association, law enforcement organizations, the State Democratic Party, and the popular mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa, who's featured in recent TV ads.

(Soundbite of Proposition 82 ad)

Mayor ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA (Los Angeles, California): By voting yes on Prop 82, we can help all our kids start their education the right way, with a quality preschool.

JAFFE: But there's a difference between liking preschool and liking Prop 82, say the measure's opponents. Some, like California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, object to the way the program would be funded: A hike in income taxes for individuals making over $400,000 a year and couples making over 800,000. In an interview with NPR, Schwarzenegger pointed out that voters raise taxes on the rich just two years ago, to pay for mental health programs.

Governor ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (Republican, California): How many times can you go to the same people? Everyone always comes up with the same line: let's raise taxes on the rich. And I have a concern that this is not going to work.

JAFFE: Those new taxes would bring in $2.4 billion a year. Bruce Fuller, a professor of Education and Public Policy at UC-Berkeley, says voters might be surprised at who that money might help the most.

Professor BRUCE FULLER (Education and Public Policy, UC-Berkeley): When our research center broke out the expenditures; and again, this would cost about $24 billion over 10 years, about 60 percent of that goes to parents who can already afford to pay for preschool.

JAFFE: By making what they already pay for free.

Prof. FULLER: Exactly.

JAFFE: And Fuller says that $2.4 billion program might raise preschool enrollment as little as five percent.

Prof. FULLER: We have about 523,000 four year olds statewide in California. And about 65 percent of those are already enrolled in a preschool center.

JAFFE: But those aren't all quality programs, according to Prop 82 supporters. The initiative would try to increase quality by requiring all preschool teachers to have B.A. degrees, and aligning the curriculum with what's taught in public school.

(Soundbite of children playing)

JAFFE: But things are taught differently here at the Manhattan Beach Academy. It's a Montessori School where lessons conform to an alternative philosophy of education. It's been used around the world for nearly 100 years. Neah Levy(ph) who operates the school is one of a number of preschool owners opposing Prop 82.

Ms. NEAH LEVY (Owner, Manhattan Beach Academy): Under their program this would not qualify as a quality program. And the beauty of preschool now is that there are so many different programs for parents to choose from. And under Prop 82 a lot of those will not qualify. You're going to have to fit into their carbon copy of what a quality preschool is, in order to be considered.

JAFFE: One prominent figure, noticeably missing from the campaign for Prop 82, is the man most responsible for getting it on the ballot, Ron Reiner. He's been laying low since it was discovered that the state commission headed used tax dollars to pay for ads touting preschools. At the same time, he was collecting signatures to qualify Prop 82 for the ballot. It's being investigated, and he resigned as head of that commission under pressure.

Through a campaign spokesman, Reiner declined an interview for this story. His last major public appearance was in mid-March at the Sacramento Press Club.

Mr. ROB REINER (Former Chairman, California Preschool Commission): At the end of the day, this isn't about me. This is about four year olds. And I think what voters, when they go into the voting booth, are going to say do I care one way or the other about Rob Reiner? No. Do I want kids to get preschool? Yes or no, they'll decide.

JAFFE: And it's going to be a close decision. The latest poll shows support for Prop 82 dropping, with just over half the voters inclined to vote yes.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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