Californians Weigh Merits of Preschool for All ; amid Disagreement over Which Children Would Benefit, Voter Support for the June Ballot Initiative Is Dropping

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. - At the Family Nurturing Center - a top-rated California private preschool here - 4-year-olds are spread among a half-dozen play stations doing what kids do best. They dress up, sing, glue buttons to paper, work puzzles, play restaurant, and listen to stories.

Currently, such primary education costs a California family an average of $4,022 a year. An initiative on the June ballot would put the state on the hook to pay the preschool bill.

Supporters hope that if voters pass Proposition 82, some 550,000 4-year-olds who live in California would have a chance to go to school. Currently, 1 in 5 children in the state attends school before kindergarten. However, the initiative, which was once popular with residents, is losing voter support amid a disagreement over which children would benefit.

If it were to pass, California would be the fourth state after Georgia, Florida, and Oklahoma to provide universal preschool for 4- year-olds. (Illinois has proposed doing so for 3- and 4-year-olds.) Of these states, California would make the largest investment.

"California is so huge, with such a large percentage of the nation's children, that everything it does in education has a huge impact," says Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research.

Prop. 82 would create a 3-hour daily program for 180 days a year with new teacher qualifications and curriculum standards. Out are regimented, one-size-fits-all approaches, say teachers. In are individualized and "experiential" learning methods. "If they are interested in it, we will do it, says director/teacher Michelle Ventimiglia at the Family Nurturing Center. "If they are not, we won't."

Universal preschool in California would be voluntary and expensive. The money will come from a 1.7 percent tax on individuals with incomes over $400,000 (or couples who earn $800,000 or more). Prop. 82 is expected to generate about $2.1 billion to $2.4 billion annually, providing $24 billion over a decade.

The financial boost could improve academic achievement in California schools, which once ranked No. 1 in scholastic aptitude test scores, and now is 45th in reading skills, say teachers unions, politicians, and labor groups backing Prop. 82. Others dispute whether preschool will have a positive impact on student performance.

The new initiative would invest more than other states do in preschool, providing twice the amount of money as Florida. The teacher training component is modeled after Oklahoma's successful program. "Prop. 82 is very comprehensive. It's really going to improve the quality of teachers, their education and training, and school infrastructure . …