Rob Reiner's Proposition 82, the "Preschool for All" initiative that will appear on California's June 6 ballot, is teetering on the brink of collapse.
What's bringing it down is a combination of two things. First, Prop. 82 is the ill-conceived brainchild of a group of Hollywood personalities who - let's face it - don't have a clue about educational realities.
And second, Reiner's First 5 California Families and Children Commission will be the subject of a full-scale state audit for possible misuse of public funds. Reiner, while denying any wrongdoing, has taken a leave of absence from the commission.
Whether Prop. 82 fails because of financial improprieties or because of its own intrinsic shortcomings doesn't matter. The important thing is that Californians realize its folly and chose instead to focus on other, more useful academic goals.
On paper the concept is, of course, appealing. Under Prop. 82, free preschool would be available to any four-year-old who wished to enroll.
And the claims coming out of the Reiner camp are that preschool translates into 13,800 fewer students who repeat grades in primary education, 9,000 fewer kids in special education, and 10,000 more high school graduates.
By adulthood, Prop. 82 proponents insist that those who had preschool instruction are less likely to be dependent on public assistance or to be incarcerated.
And since funding would come from $2.4 billion in taxes imposed upon Californians who earn more than $400,000, Prop. 82 is advertised as a low-cost benefit to the average worker.
So far, so good. But a closer examination made by the non-partisan Rand Corporation found that 66 percent of all California preschool-age children already attend preschool. Prop. 82 would only increase the total to 70 percent. In other words, Prop. 82 would cost $2.4 billion to attain a net increase of 4 percent, or 22,000 students, in preschool enrollment.
According to the Legislative Analyst, the cost of preschool education would be $8,000 per student, per year for a part-time, three-hour per day program.
For the same $2.4 billion, California - badly stretched for educational capital - could hire 69,000 teachers, build or modernize nearly 17,000 new classrooms, or purchase 1.2 million new computers.
In addition to the questionable use of funds, Prop. 82 also raises concerns about creating another layer of a Sacramento bureaucracy that is already a dismal failure.
Under Prop. 82, the state superintendent, Jack O'Connell, would be responsible for establishing the money counties would receive per eligible pupil. Then, those counties can divide their money however they please, but subject to O'Connell's approval.
An interesting side bar, reported by Capitol Weekly News, is that O'Connell campaigned with Reiner in support of Prop 82. In turn, O'Connell was the only statewide candidate to receive financial support - to the tune of $1,500 - from Reiner last year during his re-election effort.
Rather than construct a brand-new administrative and financial monster, as Prop. 82 would certainly do, why not work within the existing system by making kindergarten mandatory?
Look at the California State Board of Education Content Standards for kindergarten, and ask yourself why this grade level is voluntary.
Here are a few of the things expected of children who complete kindergarten:
• In reading, children must be able to distinguish letters from words; read one-syllable, high-frequency sight words; and describe common objects and events in general and specific language.
• In writing, create brief legible sentences using upper- and lower-case letters.
• In math, compare length, width and capacity of objects; identify and describe common geometric objects; and compare familiar plane and solid objects by common attributes.
If I were a parent or activist concerned about California school children's level of academic preparation, I would insist that they attend kindergarten, where the structure for learning is already in place.
And I would forget about more costly and unproven initiatives like Prop 82.
Joe Guzzardi, an instructor at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
First published: Saturday, April 15, 2006