It’s not easy to be against any education initiative in California. From guaranteeing public schools a specific share of the state budget to setting up after-school programs and making it easier for school construction bonds to pass, voters approve almost everything touted as adding something to the education grab-bag.
That may explain why none of the current candidates for governor has yet opposed Proposition 82, which aims to give preschool to all kids by taxing the moderately rich.
But Proposition 82 is one education initiative that deserves to lose. Not only because of the distinctly unkosher way in which the resigned First 5 Commission Chairman Rob Reiner, a top-ranking movie producer and director still best known for his youthful role as Meathead on “All in the Family,” spent tax money promoting the merits of preschool while qualifying petitions for Proposition 82 were in circulation.
There are three basic problems with this initiative, the only major proposition on the June primary election ballot: The way it would be funded, the assumptions behind it and the reality of who would benefit from it.
Taking a cue from the success of the 2004 Proposition 63, which passed by a 53-47 percent margin and now funds an expansion of mental health services, the current initiative would raise about $2.4 billion yearly by taxing the well-to-do. Where Proposition 63 was aimed at the super-rich - adding 1 percent to the tax on income over $1 million per year - this one aims at the so-so rich, adding 1.7 percent to the tax on individuals earning more than $400,000 a year.
While few doctors, lawyers and other professionals earn more than $1 million yearly, plenty make more than $400,000 and still have trouble paying off today’s high mortgages and making other ends meet.
Then there’s the question of how often voters can tap high incomes before the wealthy begin relocating elsewhere. No one knows the answer to this, but it is certain that the same taxpayers can’t be dunned indefinitely while others pay nothing new.
The assumption behind Proposition 82 is also flawed, if a new study from the University of California at Santa Barbara is to be believed. Confirming an earlier federal study, the UCSB report on 10,000 children showed that kids who attended preschool have an initial advantage upon venturing into K-12 classes. But the advantage disappears by the third grade, when youngsters who have stayed at home usually catch up with preschool products.
This finding appears to render moot the 2004 statement of noted child psychiatrist Robert Needlman, often cited as an authority on preschools.
“Children in preschool learn an approach to learning itself, they learn how to learn,” Needlman said.
The UCSB study indicates others kids are also learning, whether at home or in a variety of childcare situations.
And there’s the issue of who benefits. Even under Proposition 82, preschool attendance would not be compulsory. The state’s nonpartisan legislative analyst estimates about 64 percent of California 4-year-olds now attend preschool, with parents or others paying. The figure would climb only to about 75 percent under Proposition 82.
So this measure would really benefit two groups: the approximate 10 percent of 4-year-olds not now in preschool and the parents of children already attending preschool, who suddenly are looking at a subsidy.
The real public policy question voters will decide June 6, then, is this: Is it worth taxing all the somewhat rich to benefit a relatively small group of children?
The answer here is no, not when it involves singling out one group of taxpayers for a heavier burden while the long-term benefits are doubtful.
Write to political columnist Thomas Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org.