California, Massachusetts Reject Universal Preschool Initiatives

Published October 1, 2006

The idea of large-scale, state-run, “free” preschool programs stalled in two states and passed in one so far this year.

California voters and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) rejected plans for universal preschool in June and August, respectively. But on July 25, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) signed a measure making his state the first to fund preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds.

Elsewhere, the concept is still in play. According to an August 2006 Manhattan Institute report, Pre-K: Shaping the System that Shapes Children, 20 governors mentioned pre-K in their 2005 State of the State addresses, and 26 state legislatures proposed increasing investments in their state’s pre-K programs for FY06.

Legislatures in Vermont and Wisconsin held hearings this summer debating the merits of funding preschool for all children. In Virginia, Gov. Tim Kaine (D) will announce the details of his universal preschool plan sometime this fall.

California Rejection

On June 6, 61 percent of California voters rejected a ballot initiative that would have funded voluntary preschool for every 4-year-old in the state through a $2.8 billion annual tax increase on high income earners.

Despite an early lead in the polls and large financial investments from Hollywood activists and labor unions–including $4 million from movie director Rob Reiner–voters became increasingly skeptical of the idea.

Since then, several California counties statewide have begun using tobacco-tax funds for universal preschool programs in their communities. And on September 7, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) signed into law A.B. 172, providing $50 million to expand preschool opportunities for low-income children.

According to the Los Angeles Times, that money will give an additional 12,000 to 17,000 4-year-olds statewide the chance to attend preschool.

Biased Study

Much of the California initiative’s early momentum came from a study by the RAND Corporation, which found that for every dollar invested in preschool, Californians would gain between $2 and $4 in future savings from such factors as lower dropout and crime rates and increased college graduation rates.

However, the RAND report ignored many of the costs associated with universal preschool and used biased assumptions to come up with future economic benefits in California, said Chris Cardiff, a San Jose State University economics professor who coauthored a critical analysis of RAND’s study that was published by the Reason Foundation.

“On the surface, the RAND study looks like a credible, thoroughly researched document,” Cardiff said. “But upon review, we found [it] fails to pass even the basic benchmarks of what can be considered a reasonable economic analysis.”

Massachusetts Veto

On August 4, Romney vetoed universal preschool legislation in Massachusetts. The bill, unanimously passed by both legislative houses, would have created programs for all children between age 2 and kindergarten.

In a news release, the governor called the program “another expensive entitlement which by some estimates will cost taxpayers upwards of $1 billion a year. By passing this bill, the Legislature is laying the groundwork for future tax increases.”

The 2006 state budget includes $4.6 million in new funding for pilot universal preschool programs in communities with at-risk preschoolers.

The governor argued the state should wait for results from the pilot program before expanding it statewide.

Illinois Law

Illinois’ Preschool for All law amends the school code to authorize the use of state funds for pre-kindergarten services for children who are not at-risk.

Though it’s theoretically universal, in practice the program will begin by targeting economically disadvantaged children.

The newest state budget includes an additional $45 million for Preschool for All, to pay for 10,000 more 3- and 4-year-olds to attend preschool. The program restricts the way slots are filled, giving priority to children deemed at risk of failing in school.

The program sunsets in two years and will have to be reauthorized, making it unlikely ever to reach “all” children.

Lisa Snell ([email protected]) directs the Reason Foundation’s education program.

For more information …

“Is Universal Preschool Beneficial? An Analysis of RAND Corporation’s Analysis and Proposals for California,” by Christopher F. Cardiff and Edward Stringham, published by the Reason Foundation in May 2006, is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to, click on the PolicyBot™ button, and search for document #19211.

“Pre-K: Shaping the System that Shapes Children,” by Stephen Goldsmith and Rhonda Meyer, Manhattan Institute Civic Bulletin No. 42, August 2006,

“Gov. Signs Preschool Funding Bill,” by Carla Rivera, Los Angeles Times, September 8, 2006,,0,3572532.story?coll=la-headlines-politics