Public Funding of Preschool Education

The National Review wants to 86 California’s Proposition 82, which they note is a a June 6 ballot referendum seeking to create a statewide universal-preschool program:

Proposition 82 proposes that California provide free preschool for any four-year-old whose parents request it. This generosity is expected to cost over $2 billion per year, to be extracted through an income-tax hike on individuals making over $400,000 annually … Around 65 percent of California’s four-year-olds already attend preschool. The goal of Proposition 82 is to enroll 70 percent of the state’s four-year-olds in the public-preschool program, while an additional 10 percent or so would attend private preschools. So why the huge cost for such a marginal increase in enrollment? Part of the reason is that Proposition 82 is not at all targeted to help those most in need. In fact, the plan is the opposite of targeted: It is blind, bloated, and indiscriminate. According to a study done by California’s former legislative analyst William Hamm, now a managing director with the independent consulting firm LECG, 75 percent of the massive universal-preschool budget would go to families who would send their children to preschool anyway, without the help of the program. Almost 25 percent of the program’s funding—more than $500 million—would subsidize families making over $100,000 a year. Only 8.4 percent of the budget would be spent on high-risk children who otherwise wouldn’t attend preschool. So Proposition 82 would create a massive state bureaucracy to provide a universal service that the vast majority of affected Californians already can—and already do—provide for themselves. Even if you saw nothing intrinsically wrong with targeting a tiny segment of private citizens for a $2 billion earned-income tax hit, this is a fiscal boondoggle. On top of its wastefulness, Proposition 82 would create a set of expensive and nonsensical requirements for California’s preschool teachers.

Odd – William Hamm did not say this program was wasteful. In fact, he has not said whether he was in favor of it or against it. The folks at RAND argue:

There is increased interest in California and other states in providing universal access to publicly funded high-quality preschool education for one or two years prior to kindergarten entry. In considering such a program, policymakers and the public focus on the potential benefits from a universal preschool program, as well as the estimated costs. This study aims to inform such deliberations by conducting an analysis of the economic returns from investing in preschool education in the state of California. The benefit-cost analysis undertaken in this study indicates that there can be positive returns for California society from investing in a one-year high-quality universal preschool program. The authors’ baseline estimate, which is arguably conservative, is that every dollar invested by the public sector beyond current spending will generate $2.62 in returns.

I’m glad the National Review is not disputing the benefits from preschool education and I welcome the debate as to how best to fund it. After all – our governor pretends we can have better education without raising taxes.