Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - April 26, 2006

The pros and cons of Universal Preschool

Local providers worried by implications of state initiative

by Alexandria Rocha

In six weeks, California voters will be asked to make a momentous decision regarding the state's greatest resource — its children.

Issues at stake include whether the state's wealthiest residents should fund a new preschool system; whether early childhood educators need college degrees; and whether the preschool curriculum should enter the world of high-stakes education.

If approved, the controversial Preschool For All Initiative — or Proposition 82, which will appear on the June 6 gubernatorial ballot — would affect just about everyone statewide: from children and parents, to teachers and administrators, to the poor and very wealthy.

The initiative is 33 pages long and backed financially by Hollywood actor-director Rob Reiner, who also helped levy the tobacco tax in 1998.

In Palo Alto, there is wide support for the Universal Preschool concept. However, most early childhood educators are hesitant to accept Proposition 82 as the answer. The same goes for Palo Alto residents: Out of 222 people who voted on the Weekly's latest online news poll — "Do you support Proposition 82?" — 75.5 percent said "no."

Among providers, no one is quite sure how the measure would be implemented or how it would impact existing centers in Palo Alto.

Those concerns center around four major areas: funding, facilities, curriculum and teachers.

"The thought that every family could have the ability to send their child to a preschool program is great," said Margo Dutton, executive director of Palo Alto Community Child Care (PACCC). "On the other hand, we don't really know the challenges that would present us, and that keeps us up at night.

[u1]To answer some of those questions, a community roundtable with members of the Local Early Education Planning Council of Santa Clara County will be held May 11 at PACCC's headquarters, 3990 Ventura Court.

If Proposition 82 passes, it would provide three hours of daily preschool for all 4-year-olds in the state. The program would be voluntary, meaning providers do not have to apply for funds and parents can send their children wherever they choose.

The initiative mandates that only the state's wealthiest residents — those who make $400,000 a year or more — would fund the program. That's less than 1 percent of California's population, but would generate $2.4 billion annually.

All preschool providers that qualify can apply for the funds, including family-, faith-, and community-based programs as well as private ones. The initiative is designed so parents of all income levels have an opportunity to send their children to their center of choice.

Funds will initially be distributed by county offices of education to neighborhoods with under-performing schools. Counties have until 2010 to implement services in all areas.

Proposition 82 would also initiate further wholesale changes. Preschool teachers who do not have college degrees will have to return to school . Providers who receive funds to take in more children will have to find added space .

Once children are placed in a program, the curricula will have to be aligned with state standards.

Dutton said state officials will have nine months to outline the new system's regulations if voters approve the measure in June. After that, each county's Proposition 82 team must roll out its plan.

Don Bolce, assistant director of the Santa Clara County Office of Education's Center for Education Planning, said his office has not taken a position on the initiative.

"We realize it would be a major job and a very important job to plan and implement. But the initiative has not passed. We're trying to get prepared for the planning process if it is passed," he said.

Almost every element of the Preschool For All Initiative has been controversial, dividing people from the beginning. The California Teachers Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, California support the measure, while the California Montessori Council and the Private Child Care Network have come out against the proposition.

Policymakers also weighed in earlier this monthas well: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is against the proposition, but his Democratic gubernatorialopponents Phil Angelides and Steve Westly support it.

Palo Alto has dozens of preschool providers —including small faith-based programs that serve less than 20 students, Montessori schools that operate on a unique curriculum, and centers in homes where children are cared for by moms.

One of the largest providers is PACCC, which runs five preschools across the city. Because the Palo Alto school district has indicated it will not open any preschools if Proposition 82 passes, it's likely existing centers—such as PACCC—will be affected the most.

Dutton is not sure if Palo Alto would even receive any funds.

"We're waiting to see what the county plan will look like," she said. "Palo Alto, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Mateo and Mountain View all stand to not be a part of the program from the beginning."

Dutton and other providers say high-performing schools in those areas put them low on the priority list. They're also not convinced the proposition would generate enough funds to help everyone who applies statewide.

"Proposition 82 grossly underestimates how much it costs to do a good quality program," said Sharon Keplinger, director of the Palo Alto Unified School District's childhood development programs. "It's a great idea, but you have to fund it properly."

Across the state, families pay an average of $4,022 a year for part-time preschool, according to a report by the nonprofit group Fight Crime: Invest in Kids in California.

Preschool tuition in Palo Alto is typically much higher, and most programs have waiting lists. While there are some programs here costing as low as $700 a month, others have price tags of more than $2,000 a month.

Proposition 82 would allocate about $6,000 per child a year.

Because Palo Alto may not receiving any funds, the city could also loseits preschool teachers, Dutton said. Under Proposition 82, early childhood educators would earn as much as elementary school teachers.

Dutton said preschool teachers with degrees may leave the area to work in cities where Prop 82 funds have been distributed . "What happens to our existing workforce? If we cannot match the salaries, we'll lose them," Dutton said. "Those with degrees or who want to get degrees may be the first to leave."

Teachers like Sheena Melwami, 23, give Dutton hope. Melwami has worked at PACCC's Barron Park Children's Center for about 18 months and is earning her degree in early childhood education.

"While being paid more sounds nice, I would rather be happy doing what I love," she said.

Dutton maintains, however, that the recruiting and hiring process for preschool teachers with degrees—or in the process of earning them—is about to get especially competitive.

Proposition 82 also calls for the preschool curriculum to be aligned with state academic standards for elementary schools.

This has early childhood educators in Palo Alto worried.

"The curriculum has gotten pushed back so kindergarten is much more strenuous than it used to be. There is homework in kindergarten," said Elissa Kaplan, who has taught at Preschool Family for about 10 years. "We don't allow enough time for kids to play and just be. I don't want to see the curriculum brought down."

Kaplan said Preschool Family "fights very hard" to keep the program's curriculum developmentally appropriate. The idea, she said, is for kids to be prepared for kindergarten without sacrificing invaluable playtime.

Preschool Family, which only serves about 40 4-year-olds a year, and PACCC's centers operate on play-based curricula. Children learn social and basic academic skills.

"The testing at the state level has filtered down into this level. Every parent wants their child to do well," said Keplinger, who is the fourth coordinator of Preschool Family in 60 years. "These schools are tough in Palo Alto. They're challenging, but they should be healthy, too."

Dutton said it is a mistake to assume that play-based programs do not educate.

"There's numbers, colors, letters. They're learning the same kinds of things children learn in academic programs. We believe the social and emotional development is just as important as the academic development," Dutton said.

While most elements of Proposition 82 have proved controversial, no one seems to be arguing the overall benefits of preschool—whether play-based or academic.

Preschool California, a nonprofit organization established in 2003, surveyed 520 of the state's kindergarten teachers in public schools last fall about their attitudes toward preschool.

The teachers came out overwhelmingly in support of preschool. Ninety-five percent said students who attend preschool are more prepared to start kindergarten. Specifically, the children showed better recognition of colors and shapes and ability to follow instructions, pay attention, share, and play well with other children.

The kids also demonstrated advanced math and literacy skills.

Preschool Family Program operates under the district's Adult School. While the program only serves a small number of children a year, parents are also required to attend classes. Unlike more traditional preschools, the teachers have early childhood education and parent education credentials and make about $30 an hour.

"I wouldn't have traded a minute. It's so rich to participate in your child's education," said Preschool Family Director Sigrid Pinsky, whose 10-year-old daughter went through the program and twins are now.

The only problem? There is not enough space for every family.

"Clearly we're not handling every 4-year-old in Palo Alto," Keplinger said.

According to a 2005 RAND Corporation study, about 71 percent of Santa Clara County's 4-year-olds attend preschool. The same study reports that the Bay Area can expect about 92,000 preschoolers each year for the next decade.

If a Universal Preschool system was implemented, according to the RAND study, the region could see a 3 percent to 5 percent drop in children needing special education; an 11 percent reduction in high school dropouts; and an 11 percent drop in the number of juvenile criminal cases.

Because of these findings, the state's Police Chiefs Association and Sheriff's Association have come out in support of the initiative.

Regardless of the controversies, Dutton is staying positive.

"At the end of the day, if it passes or not, it elevates the quality of programs. It makes you look at what you're doing and how you're doing it," she said.

For more information on Proposition 82, visit www.preschoolforallca.com and www.stopreiner.org.

Staff writer Alexandria Rocha can be e-mailed at arocha@paweekly.com. [u1]

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