Pick an aphorism, any aphorism — “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” “Big Brother is watching.” Each applies with equal accuracy to Proposition 82, the preschool time bomb waiting to explode in the California primaries.
Proposition 82 is a deceptively benign sounding initiative, the stated aim of which is to give four year olds one good year before kindergarten: Thus, the Proposition, authored and sponsored by liberal gadfly Rob Reiner, innocuously asks
“Should the California Constitution and state law be amended to create and support a new, publicly funded, voluntary preschool program for children to attend in the year prior to kindergarten, to be funded by an increase in personal income tax rates for high income individuals?”
Any right thinking (or do I mean Left thinking?) person will, of course, answer “Yes, yes, let’s tax the inequitably rich to help those needy four year olds.”
Just the other day, in a lengthy Los Angeles Times op-ed, a Professor from the University of Minnesota weighed in, explaining that Californians cannot spend their tax dollars in a better way than to fund education initiatives for four year olds. He cites chapter and verse about studies showing huge benefits to be had from a single good preschool year.
Frankly, I don’t doubt that the good Professor may be right about the benefit of a stimulating program for four year olds, especially for the low income four year olds he admits are the primary focus of his own studies. However, the good professor is talking about larger theory, and appears totally unaware of the actual facts lurking behind Proposition 82. And as always, the Devil is in the details – details that are admirably spelled out in a Reason Foundation report. (The same report also makes clear that the program the professor touts as so beneficial is completely unrelated to what will be foisted on Californians.)
One fact is how little benefit will actually accrue if Prop 82 goes into effect. The Proposition’s stated goal is to provide a year of preschool for 70% of California’s average annual population of 550,000 four year olds. That is, the plan proposes sending 385,000 four year olds to preschool every year. What a noble number! The plan, however, ignores the fact that, annually, 66% of California’s four year olds – or 363,000 – already go to preschool. This means a huge tax bill and the creation of a bureaucratic monster for a mere 22,000 four year olds.
Another fact is the fundamental premise underlying Prop 82, namely, that its passage means the State of California will step in and manage yet more education in California. This is not a good thing. It’s no secret that California schools went from being first in the nation to just about worst in the nation. They are now struggling along in the bottom half of the nation’s schools. The State’s promised involvement doesn’t inspire me to believe that, even assuming huge benefits from preschool education, we’ll ever see them.
(Incidentally, I hit the California school system just as the precipitous decline began. My own experience tells me that, as to middle class schools, the decline had little to do with funding, and lots to do with the fact that California gleefully embraced every crackpot educational theory that came along, all of which required abandoning basic educational principles and classroom behaviors.)
The worst fact, though, is the complete destruction of a free market for parents seeking a preschool education for their children. For schools to compete, they’re all going to have to hop on Board with whatever licensing requirements the State comes up with. Those schools that do not want to, or cannot, comply with these licensing requirements, will hear that famous “giant sucking sound” as the marketplace tilts toward the subsidized schools.
Based upon the State’s already existing educational requirements, it is likely that schools will be required to have teachers with Bachelor’s degrees, will have to conform to small classroom sizes, and will have strict age segregation. I can hear some of you thinking, “Well, what’s wrong with that? Our children deserve the best.” But the fact is, these requirements may not be the best. Montessori schools are a good example of the destructive effect of these unthinking requirements.
Unlike the trend in regular schools, the Montessori approach does not segregate children by age but, instead, groups three through five year olds together, something that Montessorians believe (and studies support) benefits all ages. A Montessori classroom doesn’t have eleven children, it has thirty children. This works – and works well — because a Montessori teacher works with small groups throughout the day, getting each group going on a lesson plan before moving to the next group (think of it like those Chinese plate spinners you used to see on the Ed Sullivan program). The classroom is a dynamic place with children constantly learning and working. In this, it differs from a traditional environment where the teacher is attempting to engage the entire class’s attention at any given time. (You can read more about Montessori here.)
Because Montessori is an entirely different (and quite successful) approach to early childhood education, teachers do not earn their teaching degrees by attending traditional four year colleges. Instead, they embark on a lengthy and intense Montessori training program. This program doesn’t qualify them to teach at high school and college, but it is certainly more than enough to make a well-trained teacher an extraordinary person to help cultivate a three, four or five year old’s intellectual, academic and social abilities.
Of course, under a State-run program, these unique Montessori virtues will vanish. Teachers will be required to have BAs, which will effectively render unemployable some (indeed, most) of the best teachers around. Classes will shrink to eleven or so students, which is death to the unique Montessori teaching methodology, and children will be isolated by age, something Montessorians believe is antithetical to good social and intellectual development.
Now you, of course, don’t have to believe in all of Montessori’s virtues. But I do, as do many parents who have researched carefully what they want for their children. In a free market, we should be able to go out and get what we want. With Proposition 82, however, the free market will be destroyed, as the State puts into effect licensing requirements that destroy Montessori schools (and Waldorf schools, and whatever other alternative schools you can think of).
As the Reason Foundation article (which I urge you to read in its entirety) concludes, getting California involved in an education program that will benefit, at most 22,000 children, is a terrible idea that will destroy the free market in early childhood education. In lieu of a strong, healthy free market, it will Substitute a state that has a proven track record of failure. It’s a bad idea and I strongly urge you to vote against Prop 82.
UPDATE: I had lunch with Don Quixote today. He told me that he'd seen a pro-Prop 82 commercial (by the teachers' union, perhaps?) that claimed that only 20% of California's 4 year olds attend preschool annually. That's a vastly different number from the 66% figure I found in the Reason Foundation article and, if correct, would change my analysis. So, I went hunting and found a variety of numbers, although none in the 20% range. The California Voter information guide says 62% of California's 4 year old's attend some type of preschool (with that number slanted towards the middle class). An advocacy group called Child Now, which exists to expand government funded preschools, claims that only 54% of California's 4 year olds attend preschool. What's the real number? I don't know. The official number, from the Voter Information Guide, certainly inclines in my direction. Therefore, while it may not be as high as 66%, I'm willing to bet that it's waaaaay higher than the 20% the ad is claiming.
For another update, I've tracked down an article that is just scathing about the initiative. It's better than what I wrote so, if this piqued your interest, you should follow up here. The striking thing about the article, from my point of view, is that it implies that all California preschool teachers, whether or not they teach in a funded school, will be required to have a BA degree. This is an important point because DQ argued pointed out that, if the stringent licensing requirements apply only to the new public preschools, that will not destroy the alternative schools. Instead, alternative schools such as Montessori and Waldorf will simply have to compete within the private school market, as schools for older kids do, rather than in the general market. Although DQ has a good point (as he always does) I already don't like change in the level of government intrusion, because it's not true market competition — instead, it's forcing schools that have competed in the market suddenly to compete against government schools, which is no market. In any event, if the creation of these schools will create a universal licensing standard in California, that will destroy forever many alternative schools — which, of course, trakcs back to my original point.
Lastly, I'll add that I have no problem with increasing educational opportunities. I simply have a problem with California expanding its net through government run programs, since it has a bad education track record, and will end up destroying some wonderful alternatives to traditional education. If this were a voucher initiative, I'd probably be all over it, especially since I'd see it as the thin edge of the wedge for expanding vouchers to grade levels other than preschools.
Talking to Technorati: Proposition 82, Montessori, Preschool