Preschool initiative is tough sell in Calif.
Voters worry about a tax hike, even one that targets the rich
SACRAMENTO -- Provide free preschool for all California children, tax the rich to pay for it, and get a famous Hollywood director to sell it.
A measure on Tuesday's ballot to create universal preschool in the nation's most populous state seemed like a can't-miss idea in heavily Democratic California. But the $2.4 billion-a-year plan has been a tough sell.
The Preschool for All initiative's best-known supporter, ``When Harry Met Sally" director Rob Reiner, ducked out of the campaign spotlight this spring after a state education commission he headed was accused of improperly using taxpayer money to run TV commercials in favor of preschool. Critics said it was a ploy to promote the ballot measure.
Since then, voters' mood about the economy has soured as gas prices have soared, raising questions about whether they will support a tax increase, even one on the wealthy.
Opponents of the preschool measure say it will burden the state's already troubled public school system with yet another big-ticket bureaucracy.
``It looks like [Reiner] overestimated the potential for support from this side of the fence," said Republican strategist Dan Schnur, who is not involved with either side in the campaign.
Reiner's measure would be paid for with a 1.7 percent tax increase on individual incomes of more than $400,000 and couples' incomes of more than $800,000. The voluntary program would be available to any 4-year-old whose parents want it. The money would go toward public preschools, as well as private ones that meet the state's standards.
Also, preschool teachers would be required to have bachelor's degrees in early education and would be paid salaries comparable to those of public school teachers. That provision helped win the support of the state's teachers unions.
In a recent poll, eight in 10 Californians said they believe preschool helps students later, but only half of all likely voters said they support the ballot meausure. That support has been pretty much flat throughout the campaign.
Reiner has kept out of sight since he was forced to resign from the state's early childhood education commission in March. The Preschool for All campaign turned down a request for an interview with him.
Two weeks before he stepped down, a defiant Reiner said the commission did nothing wrong when it spent $23 million in state money for the ad campaign. He blamed the attacks on ideological opponents of preschool. ``I think the other side realizes that it's hard to debate this policy," he said. ``The one thing they have is to demonize me in some manner."
The man who played Meathead on TV's ``All in the Family" has contributed $2.8 million to the campaign. Reiner's wife and his father, comic Carl Reiner, have pumped in $1.8 million, helping buy commercials featuring teachers who support preschool.
Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger -- who launched his own political career in 2002 by persuading the voters to spend millions in existing state revenue for after-school programs -- opposes the preschool measure because it would raise taxes.
California taxpayers already spend $860 million a year on various early education programs, and about 60 percent of 4-year-olds are in some kind of preschool, public or private. Reiner and his supporters say the measure would establish a high-quality program for everyone.
The California Chamber of Commerce and other opponents say California should spend its money on the children who need it most -- poor students and those learning English -- rather than raising taxes to subsidize wealthier parents who already pay to send their children to private preschools.
Some private operators, such as the renowned Montessori schools, also would be shut out of the program unless they alter their curriculum and teacher training.