Should free, high-quality preschool be available to every 4-year-old in the state? That's what Proposition 82, which appears on the June 6 ballot, guarantees. If the research matters, the answer is a no-brainer: pre-kindergarten is a smart investment to make in our children's futures. A library-shelf's worth of studies confirm what every parent already knows -- that the early years of a child's life make an enormous difference. That's why the waiting lists for decent preschools are endless, and it's why so many parents pinch pennies to spend, on average, $7,500 a year -- more than the tuition at Cal State University campuses -- to enroll their children.
In recent years, neuroscientists have been able to show how rapidly the brain grows. Researchers, who focus on the impact of preschool, report that providing children with a word-rich, idea-filled and emotionally supportive world, and teaching them social skills -- the ability to work and play with others -- helps them succeed in school and stay out of trouble down the road. As Nobel Prize-winner James Heckman puts it, skill begets skill.
Economists who have converted these findings about the impact of preschool into the hard cash calculus of costs and benefits report returns that excite the most market-savvy. Indeed, when stock market wizard Warren Buffett asked his daughter to invest a bundle in the program that promises the greatest returns, she picked preschool. These calculations have won over hard-nosed police chiefs, politicians in red as well as blue states, and Federal Reserve Bank economists. They persuaded the Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland chambers of commerce, habitually hostile to taxes, to back Proposition 82, even if the California chamber had turned a deaf ear.
The benefits of preschool are greatest for poor children -- that's no surprise, because those youngsters typically grow up in more stressful circumstances -- but the studies show that middle-class children are also gainers. While it's not true that, to paraphrase a familiar line, everything you really need to know you learn in preschool, it's an important start.
So what are the critics' laments? For starters, there are quibbles about the research. But, whatever the subject, there is always quibbling about the research -- think global warming. Indeed, there's stronger evidence about the benefits of preschool than for any other educational initiative being promoted. Those of us who teach at high school or college wish vainly for evidence to support our faith that we are having a similar impact in the classroom.
The opponents' biggest beef is that the measure is a giveaway to parents who can afford to send their offspring to preschool. The complaint ignores the gigantic waiting lists in many communities, the low quality of a large proportion of the preschool programs that California's children attend, the sacrifices many middle-income families make to send their children to preschool and the economic segregation that targeted programs create. No one regards kindergarten as a "giveaway," even though it's available to all. It's a taken-for-granted part of the common school system, something that's meant for everyone, rather than a means-tested benefit such as food stamps or a welfare check.
What makes 4-year-olds different from 5-year-olds? Back in the late 19th century, this same fight was being waged over free public high schools. Let the state pay only for so-called "pauper schools," opponents argued, while the well-to-do can educate their own. That idea now seems quaint because the concept of equality of educational opportunity has so dramatically expanded. Nor is higher education regarded as a giveaway program: the opportunity for everyone with a high-school diploma or its equivalent to go to college is part of the state's compact with its residents.
Everything we know about the lives of children points in the same direction -- California's educational compact ought to include preschoolers. We need to make this investment in their futures as well as the future of the state.
This article was originally posted on SF Gate.