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Ploys for tots

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

Ploys for tots

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.

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.

But critics of the Perry research -- a study that universal preschool advocates quote often -- note that all children in the study were from families living in poverty. Thus differences between the school-age and adult experiences of the preschool and control groups may not predict the effect of preschool -- or the lack thereof -- on children from other socioeconomic groups. Also, Perry Preschool teachers paid weekly 1-hour visits to students and their mothers, a service not typical of a normal preschool experience. Finally, all students in the Perry study had IQs between 70 and 85; the "normal" range is 85 to 115.

Meanwhile, Georgia's universal preschool program has yet to yield baby geniuses. A 1999 study showed that graduates did "not differ from the entire kindergarten population" in kindergarten aptitude testing scores. But a 10-year longitudinal study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development showed that regular, out-of-home child care may yield baby bullies: Kids who were routinely cared for by non-parents for more than 10 hours per week were more likely to be aggressive toward other children.

"One of the misrepresentations taking place [among universal preschool advocates] is that investing more public funds in more early childhood education is important to improve the quality of care for preschoolers and their cognitive development," said Bryan Robertson, a research fellow at the Family Research Council's Center for Marriage and Family. "But the social science tends to show that parental involvement is the most important corollary to successful academic performance later on."

The Safrits may be a case in point. Their son Taylor, now 7, knew how to read when he entered kindergarten. But he didn't learn it in preschool, though he did attend one part-time; he learned how to read at home, with mom Karen. Today, Taylor is an ace third-grader at Will Rogers Elementary School in Santa Monica.

In states where universal preschool already exists, none has yet decreed compulsory attendance. But some Californians worry that their state may be first. The Democrat-led legislature and education establishment have in recent years shown a penchant for overreach, even hegemony. For example, while some states have passed laws prohibiting discrimination against homosexual students and employees, California went a step further: It is now state law that, beginning in kindergarten, kids must be taught that homosexuality is one legitimate sexual choice among many, and that contrary views amount to bigotry.

Another example: In an effort to cut its fiscal losses incurred with a growing homeschool population, the California Education Department (CED) last year sent out a letter that tried to frighten home educators -- under penalty of law -- into placing themselves under the supervision of local public-school districts. As it turned out, the letter itself didn't comply with the law. After a storm of grassroots protest, the CED admitted that homeschoolers could operate independently after all.

Add to that history the fact that Golden State liberals now are coalescing around the CED's Master Plan for Education. That document calls for California both to establish universal preschool and switch from optional, part-day to mandatory full-day kindergarten. The plan also calls for the state to lower from 6 years to 5 its compulsory school-starting age.

Meanwhile, First 5 and the California Teachers Association (CTA) in April abruptly withdrew the "Improving Classroom Education Act," a 2004 ballot initiative that would have raised California's commercial property tax by 55 percent, ostensibly to improve existing public instruction. But the measure's language would also have amended the state constitution to establish universal preschool, per-pupil funding, and, ultimately, union control of the program.

First 5 dropped the initiative after a taxpayers group said it could prove in court that the act would also raise taxes on private property. But Pacific Research Institute education analyst Lance Izumi said language in the initiative reveals what may be in store for California. "The fact that [the CTA] was pushing for per-pupil funding means universal preschool would have become part of the public education system," Mr. Izumi said, adding that similar, future initiatives may bear the same threat. "It's only a small step from voluntary to mandatory preschool. It will be easy to say next that since some kids are not taking advantage of preschool and are falling behind, we need to make the program mandatory."

Lynn Vincent

Lynn Vincent

Lynn is a senior writer for WORLD Magazine. She is the New York Times best-selling author or co-author of a dozen non-fiction books, including Same Kind of Different as Me. Lynn resides in San Diego, Calif.