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Local Impact of Preschool Initiative Is Unclear

By Suzanne La Barre
Tuesday May 02, 2006

An initiative to grant preschool to all California 4-year-olds is on the ballot this June, but how it would operate locally, if approved, remains unclear. 

Proposition 82, the Preschool for All initiative spearheaded by actor and director Rob Reiner, would provide $2.4 billion a year for universal preschool, extending early childhood education to about 70 to 80 percent of California’s children over the next decade. About 35 percent of the state’s children do not attend any preschool.  

The measure would levy a 1.7 percent tax on individuals earning more than $400,000 and couples who make more than $800,000. Parents would have the option to select where they want their child to attend, whether a public, private or not-for-profit institution. Non-public programs could opt into the program but would not be required to do so. 

Teachers would be required to hold college degrees, and programs would be held to statewide academic standards to prepare students for elementary school. Administration and management would fall to county school districts. 

The proposition earned the backing of the Berkeley City Council last Tuesday, with Councilmember Laurie Capitelli abstaining.  

Berkeley is home to early childhood programs of all stripes, from development centers through the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) to private Montessori schools, foreign language programs and nonprofits.  

Currently, low-income students have access to fully or partially subsidized public preschool. Statewide, about 52 percent of low-income 4-year-olds attend preschool. BUSD offers early education to about 340 students. 

At the other end of the spectrum are the private and nonprofit programs, which parents generally finance out-of-pocket. An institution like The Model School on Prince Street can range anywhere from $667 to $946 a month, depending on hours of care received. 

Prop. 82 supporters say the initiative would benefit low- and middle-income families, who may not qualify for Head Start and other state-sponsored programs but can’t afford to send their children to pricey private schools. 

“The poor have access to the subsidized programs and the well-to-do can pay tuition,” said Rebecca Wheat, former principal of early childhood development for BUSD. “But many people in the middle and the lower middle can’t pay the $1,000 a month tuition and they do not qualify for state programs.” 

Wheat, who now teaches childhood development at San Francisco State and has penned multiple books on education, supports the proposition. 

“When we get this money, hopefully it will make a big difference in a lot of lives,” she said. 

She has reservations, though. Among them: Will standardizing curriculum tarnish program variety and lead to the type of testcentric, cookie-cutter education that features prominently in California’s K-12 schools? 

Alameda County Office of Education Superintendent Sheila Jordan says “no.” The office, which would manage Berkeley’s participating Preschool for All sites, would ensure program diversity, she said. 

“We’re not going to do a one-size fits all,” Jordan said. “There will be some standardized programs, but we want to be able to create space for the various cultures to develop programs that are culturally consonant.” 

She could not offer specifics beyond that, however.  

Another variable is the distribution of funding. A report released by the Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) institute suggests that by charging county education offices with program administration, Proposition 82 would favor public school districts over private and nonprofit institutions.  

Some non-public institutions reached by the Daily Planet say they won’t opt into the program anyway. Many have waiting lists and fare well without state money. Anthony Wang, owner of Berkeley Chinese School and Wonderland Preschool, is unclear as to how the ballot measure would affect those schools. 

“The area we’re serving, there’s not too many people who are low-income,” he said. “I’m not sure if we’d be affected by it.” 

But Daisy Mante, director of The Model School, feels certain the initiative would exact a toll on the state’s preschool centers.  

Her school offers childcare up to 40 hours a week, 240 days a year. The Preschool for All Initiative would fund the equivalent of one half-day, 180 days a year, which won’t meet the needs of some families, she said. 

She further questions the requirement for teachers to earn bachelor’s degrees. Teachers at The Model School, who earn between $12 and $14 an hour, are not required to hold degrees. 

“The ones who have them are not always the best teachers, and are certainly not the most loving and caring with students,” she said. Mante founded The Model School, a Montessori-based program, in 1987. 

Research does not indicate a link between a bachelor degree-level education and early childhood education, the PACE report said. 

Mante said she would not apply to receive state money through Preschool for All, but can envision a scenario where parents pressure centers to incorporate the program. 

The Berkeley-Richmond Jewish Community Center is among the schools that would not take part in the program, said assistant teacher Maia Fajerman, but she supports the measure nonetheless. 

She said, “Any money that supports early education is good.””