Study: Universal preschool a good investment

/ Source: The Associated Press

A proposed universal preschool program on California's June ballot would dramatically increase student achievement and could eventually become a national model if it is adopted, early education researchers say.

In a report released Thursday, the National Institute for Early Education Research said it conservatively estimates the state would get back $2.78 for every $1 it invests in the Proposition 82 preschool program. That estimate is similar to a finding in a study done by the RAND Corp.

The savings would come through decreased school failure rates and subsequent problems such as delinquency, crime and lower productivity, researchers said.

"It is well planned and will bring higher standards, accountability, and adequate resources to early childhood education," the institute's report said. "It has the potential to create the nation's premier preschool education system."

The nonpartisan think-tank, based at Rutgers University in New Jersey, is generally supportive of expanding preschool programs and annually evaluates state and local programs nationwide. It has previously given California poor ratings for its existing preschool programs.

Proposition 82 — proposed by Hollywood producer Rob Reiner — would impose a 1.7 percent tax on individual incomes over $400,000 a year and couples' incomes over $800,000 a year to fund a $2.4 billion annual preschool program open to all 4-year-olds.

The measure would require preschool teachers to obtain teaching credentials and be paid at rates comparable to public school teachers. The state superintendent of public instruction would oversee the curriculum.

Critics say the program would set up another costly state mandate that would benefit only a few students. Around two-thirds of 4-year-olds currently attend some kind of preschool program, but Proposition 82 supporters and opponents disagree about how good those programs are.

In Thursday's report, researchers noted serious flaws in California's education system, including fourth-grade reading scores that are lower than those in 43 other states. They said good quality preschool could help reduce strain on the K-12 system.

Poor score for California
Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, said the proposition contains all the hallmarks the group considers as essential to good-quality preschool, including teacher accreditation, comprehensive early education standards, higher teacher pay and state monitoring.

"While we might nit pick little bits here and there, compared to what most other states have on the books, the provisions of this are so much more detailed and well-planned, using reasonable timelines," Barnett said.

The group last year gave California a score of four out of 10 for its existing programs. Barnett said many of the preschool programs now available are educationally ineffective. The survey was primarily funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The No on Proposition 82 campaign referred questions to Lisa Snell, director of education at the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation. She has been critical of the June ballot initiative but is not part of the campaign.

Snell said the best use of limited preschool money would be in small-scale, intensive intervention programs for low-income and minority children. She said similar programs, such as those in Oklahoma and Georgia, have not produced significant academic gains.

"I think that they are counting on it being a silver bullet for fixing reading achievement in California," she said. "In the other two states that have universal programs it really hasn't panned out for them yet in reading achievement."