If something isn't working, does it make sense to dramatically expand it without first doing a complete overhaul? Any CEO who championed such a plan would almost certainly get shown the door, yet that's exactly what California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is proposing for the state's government-run school system.
Despite the failure of California's government-run schools to provide a proper education to its K-12 students, Arnie is pushing a $1.1 billion/year plan for universal preschool. In the United States, preschool attendance has soared from 16% to 70% without any major increase in student achievement. Here in California, 66% of the state's 4 year olds currently attend a pre-k program. Given that the majority of California's kids already go to preschool, how can it be the solution to the state's education woes?
A 2005 analysis by the RAND corporation found that 92% of the costs associated with a universal preschool program would be the result of children transferring from their existing preschools into a new state-run pre-k program. Only 11% of 4 year olds from low-income families in California are not currently attending preschool due to financial hardship. Instead of spending massive amounts of taxpayer money to subsidize medium-to-high income families' preschool costs, why not offer vouchers to those low-income families so that they can attend the preschool program of their choice?
There is little evidence that existing government-run preschools offer any lasting benefits. Most of the rosy claims proponents of universal preschool make are extrapolations from small-scale studies of disadvantaged children in programs that would be difficult to replicate on a large scale. For example, the Chicago Child-Parent Center offered not just preschool but also assistance to the parents in finishing high school, home visitations by nurses, speech therapy, and tutoring for the children up through 3rd grade. It is difficult to know how much of the benefits of that program can be attributed to the family support services as opposed to the preschool part. Even if the preschool portion did benefit the children in the Chicago study, the results may not generalize to a wider population.
A 2005 study done by researchers at Stanford and the University of California found that middle class children who attended preschool centers for as few as 15 hours/week displayed more negative behaviors than similar children who stayed at home.
California voters rejected universal preschool in 2006 by a margin of 61% to 39%. That should be a message to the governor that he ought to fix California's government-run schools, not waste billions in expanding a broken system.