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Reason Foundation

California Universal Preschool Plan Would Cost $109,000 Per New Preschooler

Study also shows the states with long-running universal pre-K programs produce some of the nation's worst reading scores

February 22, 2006

Los Angeles (February 22, 2006) — If California's $2.4 billion Preschool for All initiative meets its goal of 70 percent enrollment, just 22,000 new four-year-olds would enroll, meaning it would cost taxpayers a whopping $109,000 per new preschooler, according to a new Reason Foundation policy brief that analyzes the preschool initiative that will be on California's statewide ballot in June and existing universal preschool programs across the country.

The Legislative Analyst's Office says 66 percent of California's four-year-olds are already attending preschool, so why should taxpayers spend $2.4 billion a year on a new universal preschool plan that only hopes to get 70 percent, just an additional 4 percent of four-year-olds, into preschool? They shouldn't.

The Reason Foundation study finds a troubling lack of results and unfulfilled promises in the two states that implemented universal preschool in the 1990s: Georgia and Oklahoma. Despite, or perhaps because of, the government-run preschool programs, both states scored below the national average in fourth-grade reading on National Assessment of Education Progress tests in 2005. In fact, Georgia and Oklahoma ranked in the nation's bottom 10 when it came to improving fourth-grade reading scores from 1992 to 2005. By contrast, none of the ten best performing states had implemented universal preschool programs.

In addition to unsupported claims about improved academic performance, universal preschool's supporters regularly point to a RAND study that suggests California would reap $2.62 in benefits for every dollar it spends on preschool.

"The RAND study's predictions for California are overly optimistic and off base," Snell said. "RAND's claims are all based on a study that served 1,500 of the most disadvantaged children in Chicago. But those kids didn't just go to preschool; they also received speech therapy, health screenings, meals, tutoring through the third grade, and six years of a Child-Parent Center Program that boosted parental involvement. California's proposed preschool program is nowhere near as comprehensive and wouldn't produce anywhere near the same results. Frankly, RAND's claims are just guesses and poor extrapolations of the Chicago results."

Even the lead researcher of the Chicago project, Arthur J. Reynolds, Ph.D., cited the Child-Parent Center as a primary reason for the plan's overall success. "We are confident that participation in the Child-Parent Center Program from ages 3 to 9 years was the source of the group differences at age 20 years," Reynolds stated.

Instead of taxpayer-funded preschool, the Reason Foundation report concludes California would achieve better results by redistributing the more than $3 billion that the state already spends on preschool and implementing a preschool tax credit for lower- and middle-class families.

"If we're willing to get rid of duplicate programs and streamline the existing system to target high-risk kids, we can get large numbers of low-income children into preschool," Snell revealed. "With over 1,800 California schools listed as 'failing' under No Child Left Behind standards, the last thing we should do is create another bureaucracy that will spend over $2.4 billion on subsidizing preschool for wealthy kids."

Full Report Online

The Case Against Universal Preschool in California is available online at www.reason.org/pb42_universalpreschool.pdf. A compilation of Reason's universal preschool resources, including op-eds published by The Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, and others, can be found at www.reason.org/education/.

About Reason

Reason Foundation is a nonprofit think tank dedicated to advancing free minds and free markets. Reason produces respected public policy research on a variety of issues and publishes the critically acclaimed monthly magazine, Reason. For more information, please visit www.reason.org.

Contacts

Lisa Snell, Director of Education, Reason Foundation, (951) 218-1171
Chris Mitchell, Media Relations, Reason Foundation, (310) 367-6109



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