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Failing Preschool

Jun
8
2006

Californians are a selfless lot.
This past Tuesday – like all, I mean most, OK, like just lots of other Tuesdays in California – was an election day. On the ballet was yet another proposition, Prop. 82, this one proposing to tax the rich to pay for free, optional preschool for all four-year-olds.
Californians rejected it, in part because it wouldn’t do enough to help the poor.
Bwa ha ha ha.
That was one of the arguments in favor of voting “no,” doubtless quite true, but with a typical California preschool costing at least a few thousand dollars a year, and a typical California mortgage costing at least 150% of what you make, there are quite a few middle-income families who you’d think would be delighted to vote themselves in free schooling, whether or not it had quite enough coverage for poor kids. Still, it was a good argument aimed at the liberal constituency that should have been the proposition’s natural support.
But while there was a strong campaign against it, Prop. 82 also failed to make its case fully to those whose narrowest self-interest should have automatically led them to “yes”: parents of whatever political stripe who make up the preschool mommy. (Backer Rob Reiner also did the proposal no favors, despite the fact that San Diego parents I spoke with who had used the First 5 programs he helped establish almost universally liked them.)
You think a soccer mom has been a voter to reckon with? You do not want to mess with a preschool mommy. I got to know her when I lived in San Diego, and we, I mean she, is a suspicious lot, reluctant to let one of her precious kids out for his or her first schooling into just anyone’s hands. Whatever her take on the role of government, she’s pretty sure that California schools are a mess, whether or not her local school is a disaster or a gem.
Some of them, and I won’t name names (me), might for example have personally visited at least seven preschools and considered many more before choosing a place for her first-born to go for a total of no more than 12 hours a week.
The idea of switching to a whole new and unseen system of schools (the “yes” side did a poor job of explaining the practicalities), and public school-managed classes at that, is just too uncertain for your average preschool mommy to commit even rich folks’ money to.
Despite what they charge, private preschools have a better chance of creating warm fuzzies with parents than their kids’ public schools, in part because parents feel they have more of a choice. That’s another area that really hurt the initiative: it appeared to set up a conflict between public and private schools. And with Montessori schools, which by reputation are the Volvo of preschools, voicing a protest, that gave liberal voters uncomfortable with the proposal another semi-respectable way out.
Still, let’s get to the real reason Prop 82 lost: aspirational politics. As my Spot-on colleague Scott Olin Schmidt has pointed out, Californians have no problem with taxing the rich. A 2004 proposition that passed, for example, funded mental health programs with a tax on those with an income over $1 million. Prop. 82’s wording, however, said it would tax incomes of $800,000 for a couple, or $400,000 for an individual. Now, even today, even in California, a million dollars in income does sound like a lot. But $400,000? It just doesn’t sound quite big enough. It’s what lots of Californians hope to pick up when their dot com hits it big, or after the first couple of years in real estate. You know, it’s the kind of tax hike you can almost feel sympathetically.
And you know you can count on us (present and former) Californians for sympathy.

Share  Posted by Deborah Klosky at 2:59 PM | Permalink

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